WASHINGTON -- If Iran continues its uranium enrichment activities it is “only a question of time” before the longtime U.S. antagonist has enough material for nuclear weapons, according to former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Hans Blix (see GSN, Aug. 5).
However, Blix warned that the aftermath of any Israeli or U.S. attack on suspected Iranian nuclear weapons program facilities “could be absolutely disastrous.”
Blix has long been one of the best known names in the international field of disarmament and nonproliferation. The former Swedish diplomat has held top worldwide posts in dealing with weapons of mass destruction for the past 30 years.
He led the U.N. nuclear watchdog from 1981 to 1997. Later, Blix served as executive chairman of the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) that looked into whether Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (see GSN, July 27).
Blix subsequently headed the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission in Stockholm, an international body established by the Swedish government “to present realistic proposals aimed at the greatest possible reduction of the dangers of weapons of mass destruction.”
In the lengthy interview with Global Security Newswire, Blix talked about today’s critical nuclear issues, including when Iran could have nuclear weapons and the state of North Korea’s own arms program. In the edited excerpts below, Blix also offered his insights on how the world sees Obama administration nuclear policies, potential nuclear weapons programs from Syria to Burma, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the proliferation of nuclear power programs and the future of disarmament.
Q: CIA Director Leon Panetta recently said Iran could have nuclear weapons within two years and already has enough low-enriched uranium to make two nuclear weapons (see GSN, June 28). Do you agree with that?
Blix: We know they are developing an industrial-scale enrichment capability and within some time, whether it’s two or three or four [years], they would be able to have enough high-enriched uranium to make several bombs. Once the centrifuges spin, well, then it’s a question of time.
It maybe changes the urgency, but it doesn’t change the basic question: Can the world induce Iran to go away from a weapons option? Or even from industrial-scale enrichment?
Q: So far, those efforts have not gone well. Realistically, do you expect Iran will abandon its suspected nuclear weapons program? Or do you think it will eventually become like North Korea, now regarded in some circles as a nuclear power?
Blix: I was head of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, which as an international one, discussed what to do with proliferation in general. We agreed you must look to what are the motivations of states that may be going for a weapon? And then try to see if you can meet the interests they seek through weapons in another way.
The U.S. is the only country in connection with Iran that has not diplomatic relations, but has rather, especially during the Bush administration, kept a very haughty attitude and says, “We will talk to you when you behave.”
Q: Do you think the Obama administration would establish diplomatic relations with Iran?
Blix: Yes. The Obama administration has two chips here that could be used in further negotiations. One being assuring Iran about security and the other assuring them that, yes, they will be part of the diplomatic community through U.S. diplomatic relations. The third element is a question of assurance of supply of fuel for their reactor program.
Q: The U.N. Security Council recently issued new sanctions against Iran. The United States and Western allies also imposed their own sanctions. Do you think sanctions, a major part of U.S. strategy, will work?
Blix: There are many chips on the table, incentives and disincentives. Security guarantees would be an incentive. If you talk about sanctions, well, these are disincentives for them to continue on their present course. And they may contribute. I don’t think in themselves, they will lead to the results. Sanctions, sometimes in history, have had big effect, as in Iraq in 2001. Maybe in Libya they had some effects as well. [Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi] went along with negotiations with the U.K. and the U.S. in abandoning the nuclear program. And the long period of sanctions against Libya had an effect on him (see GSN, April 27).
Q: What do you see as the prospects and consequences of an attack on suspected Iranian nuclear weapons production facilities by the United States or, seemingly more likely, Israel?
Blix: Like most people, including [Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael] Mullen, I think that if Iran were not determined before to go for nuclear weapons, any attack from the outside would lead them to such a determination. And so, the effect could be a temporary one.
They certainly have the drawings. They have a lot of accumulated know-how. So, there could be a postponement, a time delay, but nothing else. And that’s on the gain side.
On the other side, I think the consequences of a military action could be absolutely disastrous in many respects.
In the Middle East, Iran is not going to just sit and take it, but they’re going to take countermeasures, and they could be very disastrous.
Q: There have long been calls in the U.N. and Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conferences for a nuclear weapon-free zone in the Middle East. What does the U.S. agreement this year in going along with the review conference consensus and not blocking the issue mean? (see GSN, June 10)
Blix: Well, it says the U.S. is not trying to block preparations for a conference in 2012, but there’s no guarantee that the conference will come about. They are not putting any obstacles in its way. But it’s for 2012, and many things can happen before that. The Israelis might change their mind. The Americans might change their mind. Or it may be blocked.
When I was at the IAEA, the concept of a nuclear-free zone was discussed. Of course, Iran may have a full-scale enrichment and not any bombs. But the concerns are … possible proliferation effects that others in the region would also go for enrichment, like Egypt, who is the most advanced of them. So, a zone in the Middle East, including Iran and Israel, would have to aim not only at the elimination and absence of weapons, but also of facilities to enrich uranium and to reprocess uranium to make plutonium.
Of course, that is not an idea that will fly in today’s political climate. But I don’t think you can have peace without a zone. There is nothing absurd about discussing the elements of such a zone as you discuss the peace process.
Q: What sort of job do you think new director general, Yukiya Amano, is doing at the IAEA?
Blix: I think he is continuing the course that has been traditional for the agency of a professional watchdog. And I trust he is also watching the independence of the organization, which is vital. The inspectors are watchdogs. They are not police dogs. They cannot stop someone from doing something. They can bark, but not bite.
They can bark and thereby alert the masters, and the masters are the Board of Governors and the member states. And for barking, they need to have a good sniffing ability. That has improved over the years, very much with help from the U.S. The whole technique of environmental sampling was developed in the United States and came to be used during the inspections in Iraq in the 1990s. And the U.S. has been very, very helpful in developing the safeguard program.
At the same time, it is very important that the U.S. and other great powers respect the independence of the IAEA. Because if states that are inspected feel that the inspectors are sort of a prolonged arm of the CIA or anyone else, they will not be as cooperative. So, this independent position is a very valuable one. … In my relations with the U.S. in 2000 to 2003 [while Blix led UNMOVIC], I don’t think they questioned our independence that much. They were disappointed or even angry that we didn’t find anything [in Iraq]. But I didn’t feel sort of intimidated at any time.
Q: Does the IAEA need to be more aggressive in Syria, which has blocked inspections of a suspected nuclear reactor site bombed by Israel? (see GSN, Aug. 4)
Blix: They have said …that they would want to have more explanations from Syria. And they have not been given that so far, I guess. I’d assume that they’ve maintained the pressure on Syria. It would be [desirable] that everybody contributes to the knowledge of it, including Israel and the United States.
Q: What is the feeling in general on the prospects for global nuclear disarmament right now?
Blix: I feel a lot more optimistic today than I did in 2008. It has very much to do with Obama’s visions and his ambitions. At the end of the Bush administration, we were heading into a new cold war with Russia. The atmosphere was really very bad. And Obama has succeeded in getting an opening towards détente and disarmament. …
You have the [New] START agreement. And it didn’t come about in eight of these [Bush administration] years. It had a result, which is modest, but nevertheless the springboard for things that are more difficult (see GSN, Aug. 5). Then the Obama administration also took steps to defreeze the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva.
The conference on security that Obama arranged this spring dealt with a fairly limited but nevertheless significant point: namely … that fissionable material everywhere be under good control, that there be no longer traffic in it. It maybe was good to get the attention at the highest level everywhere for that. And there was the NPT conference that is also modest progress in substance. …
Then you had the Nuclear Posture Review, in which the U.S. declared that they would not make any new nuclear weapons. …They also moved a little forward on the security guarantees to non-nuclear weapons states. You had the national security doctrine that came in recently and also indicated intention to seek less reliance on nuclear weapons.
Q: There’s been some talk of withdrawing U.S. nuclear weapons from Europe. Do you think that could happen? (see GSN, May 21)
Blix: They should withdraw them. From what I read, they really have no military significance. There was some memorandum in Washington that showed that it would take, what, two months to get an agreement on any use of them, rather than 20 minutes. But I think generally they have no military use any longer.
Q: Is there still tension between nuclear weapons states and those that don’t have nuclear weapons? A feeling the Obama administration still hasn’t done enough?
Blix: Yes, of course there is. There is a feeling the non-nuclear weapons states have refrained from making nuclear weapons, with the famous exceptions of Iraq and North Korea. And they feel that although the number of nuclear weapons has gone down from some 55,000 during the Cold War to something like 25,000 now, this is mainly for economic reasons. They’d expect the nuclear weapons states to go much further and much more quickly.
Sure, there remains an impatience, but now there’s a favorable view of the U.S. and the expectation that the nuclear weapons states will actually move, which did not exist in 2005.
Q: It seems that the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty is not coming to a vote in the very near future… (see GSN, May 26).
Blix: The obstacles lie mainly very much inside the U.S. Congress. Obama cannot today get the Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. It’s ratified by Russia, by France, by the U.K. But the U.S. Congress is, I think, more cautious and holding back and saying “the world is dangerous, we have to have an effective deterrent.”
Q: What would it mean if the U.S. did ratify CTBT?
Blix: In the first place, we could expect that China would ratify it, and there would also be good opportunities, chances to get Pakistan and India to come along. And … Israel, Iran. The only case I would wonder about would be the North Koreans. They are not party to that, and they would probably exact some price for it, or else some way would be found around it if North Korea refuses to ratify it.
So, the gain for the U.S.: much less likelihood that anyone would test a weapon in the future.
Q: You testified in the United Kingdom about the war in Iraq. Do you think the Blair administration ignored your comments on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?
Blix: We never said that there was nothing in Iraq. We said that we had carried out 700 inspections in 500 different sites and we had not found anything. But there were many, many question marks, many open issues which we listed. And the U.S. and the U.K. preferred to rely on their own intelligence, which was defective and faulty.
Q: Why is it important to talk about this now?
Blix: Well, it’s important because the IAEA inspections are paid by the world community. Why in the hell do they invest in them … if they will almost automatically believe in their own intelligence, rather than in the inspection?
Q: Do you think North Korea is going to grow into a real nuclear weapons power like China? (see GSN, Aug. 5)
Blix: They have presumably a limited quantity of plutonium available at the present time. … The more bombs they test and explode, they would consume part of the plutonium supply they have. But yes, it’s a problem. North Korea is an urgent problem.
Q: In Burma, or Myanmar, there have been mysterious hints of a nuclear weapons program. And they’re like North Korea in terms of international pariahs. Are you concerned about Burma’s nuclear plans? (see GSN, July 22)
Blix: There are conflicting reports about Burma. And to my knowledge, Burma has a very rudimentary nuclear program for medical purposes and nonpower purposes. I’m not aware that they’re planning for any nuclear power plant at the moment. So, they are at a very early stage. It may well be that there’s been connections with North Korea. As you said, both are regarded as pariah states -- and there may be first contact there. It’s quite plausible to me. But they are in any case very, very far away from the military applications.
We’re all concerned about the country of Myanmar, the regime they have, and the way that they treat their own people. So, it’s certainly a country where you want to keep your eyes on it.
Q: Are you worried about the explosion, if you will, of civilian nuclear power programs around the world?
Blix: No. I think it is desirable to have this expansion. The bigger part of the expansion is going to take place in big countries that already have nuclear weapons. China has a very fast expansion. In India there is another fast expansion; [also the] U.S., U.K., Russia.
Iran and other countries in the Middle East, for them, I think that it would be desirable to come to a zonal agreement that would exclude both reprocessing and enrichment. Because this is a volatile area and going into fuel cycle activities would raise concerns.
The commercial market probably will for most countries exclude the interest in enrichment. But in the Middle East and on the Korean Peninsula, I think it would be desirable to have zonal agreements that exclude it.
Q: What made you decide this year to chair the international advisory board of the United Arab Emirates’ nuclear program? Are you concerned people will perceive your name is being used in the Abu Dhabi capital to give it an imprimatur, to deflect any criticism?
Blix: I am convinced by the arguments Abu Dhabi has for going for nuclear. They feel that rather than using their oil to generate electricity, they will generate by nuclear power and sell the oil. In fact, the same argument as Iran has and I think it is a valid one. Other oil states will do the same thing. No one criticizes Mexico for going for nuclear, although they, too, have lots of oil. And Russia [was] also not criticized for going for nuclear and selling their oil. I think Abu Dhabi has also taken a great many steps to convince the region and the world that they have first-class nonproliferation credentials.
Q: Are you worried about proliferation? Your own WMD commission said measures must be taken to ensure the expected expansion of nuclear power does not increase the risk of fissile material being diverted to weapons.
Blix: Well, acceptance of [the IAEA] Additional Protocol is an important means to give assurance that there is no diversion of fissionable material. Under the Additional Protocol, they can go to places. They can ask for many more pieces of information, and therefore, it is much stronger as a confidence-building measure. But in terms of nonproliferation, a safeguard does not, per se, prevent a proliferator.
…In a big country like Iran or Iraq, you cannot guarantee that there are not hidden prototypes and centrifuges or installations hidden in some caves somewhere.
And prevention comes from other factors. The most important one being foreign policy and security to give assurance to countries that they do not need nuclear weapons.
The Russians developed nuclear weapons because the U.S. had. And the Chinese developed them because the Russians and the U.S. had. India developed because the Chinese had them, and Pakistan, et cetera, and Israel because of the fear of the Arabs. And if you pursue a policy of détente in the world, as we had the chance to do after the collapse of the Soviet empire, this is the most important thing you can do to prevent proliferation.
Q: President Obama said that he could envision a world without nuclear weapons, but perhaps might not see it in his own lifetime. What would you like to see done in your lifetime?
Blix: I’m not going to ridicule the target of doing away with nuclear weapons in the world. Look, between 1910 and 1950, we had two world wars and one collapsed world organization.
Now, don’t you think that a lot of things can happen between 2010 and 2050? There’s a long period ahead, and I don’t despair. Who will say it’s ridiculous to think that we couldn’t do away with nuclear weapons? However, that to me is not the big issue today. Which are the next steps we take? That’s where the political discussion and the differences are.
What do I expect within my lifetime? I am 82 now (laughs). So, it’s the next few years. I would like to see START ratified. It would be terrible if they did not ratify it. I would like to see the Comprehensive Test Ban ratified by the U.S. and China and by the others. I would like to see a cutoff agreement on the production of fissionable material for weapons purposes.
I would like to see the general acceptance of IAEA Additional Protocols. A New START agreement follow-up that reduces nuclear weapons. And I would like to see the other nuclear weapons states also joining in the process at some stage. India will not do away with their weapons before you see very strong measures to reduce them in the other nuclear weapons states. But I think they will come along.
[Also] that a U.S.-Russia agreement on nuclear cooperation comes about. It’s not going to be an easy process. I’m not saying that. But the world was heading toward a new cold war, and it is no longer ….A clear contrast to the Bush administration’s attitude when they ridiculed any idea of asking the Security Council for a “permission slip.”
There is an element of optimism that the world can steer a different course under Obama.