Forget about light bulbs – Iran wants a seat at the table
For years Mohamed ElBaradei, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and outgoing head of the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency, has warned the United States and other Western powers against jumping to conclusions about Iran’s nuclear program. While Washington, Israel and their allies see increasing indications that Tehran’s secretive nuclear program is aimed at developing weapons, ElBaradei told an audience of academics, politicians and diplomats at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City that his agency has “no concrete evidence” that Tehran is pursuing an atom bomb.
So is Iran’s nuclear program intended solely for lighting light bulbs in the world’s fourth biggest oil producer as Tehran insists? According to ElBaradei, its purpose is something completely different.
“Iran’s nuclear program is a means to an end, it wants to be recognized as a regional power,” the outspoken Egyptian lawyer and diplomat said. “They believe that the nuclear know-how brings prestige, brings power, and they would like to see the U.S. engaging them. Unfortunately that holds some truth. Iran has been taken seriously since they have developed their program.”
In other words: Don’t mess with us. We can enrich uranium.
U.N. officials who know ElBaradei have told Reuters for years that the IAEA director-general is convinced that Iran is pursuing what is often called the “break-out option” — the capability to produce nuclear weapons should it ever decide it needed them. He is not convinced, they say, that Iran has taken a decision to follow North Korea’s example and build an actual weapon.
But Western diplomats who follow the Iranian issue say that it is doubtful Iran would choose to hover on the threshold of the nuclear club without entering the door. A more likely scenario, they argue, is that the Islamic Republic would secure its place at the table of world powers by developing and possibly even testing a nuclear device. They also say the impact on the Middle East would be the same whether Iran has the “break-out option” in the drawer or a live bomb in its basement. In either case the result would be a nuclear weapons race across the already unstable Middle East.
ElBaradei has spent six of his 12 years at the helm of the IAEA neogotiating with Iran to get access to Iran’s nuclear facilities, many of which were hidden from U.N. inspectors for decades before their existence was revealed by Iranian exiles or Western intelligence agencies.
The IAEA chief chastised the administration of former U.S. President George W. Bush and the European Union’s three biggest powers — Britain, France and Germany — for failing to seize what he said was an opportunity they had years ago to persuade the Iranians to suspend their uranium enrichment program.
“They were ready to stop at an R&D (research and development) level … that could have not have created any concern for the international community,” he said.
Making matters worse, the European and U.S. demands that Iran cease all enrichment activity before negotiations on a package of economic and political incentives could begin was among the conditions imposed on Tehran that ElBaradei described as “impossible to accept.”
Western diplomats, however, have said that it would be naive to think that the Iranians were ever truly prepared to suspend their enrichment program after the EU trio launched negotiations with Tehran in the fall of 2003. They have defied three rounds of U.N. sanctions for refusing to stop enriching. Bush’s successor Barack Obama has reversed the U.S. position by offering to engage Iran’s leaders, but they have reacted coolly so far.
ElBaradei, who opposed the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq in March 2003, said Bush’s refusal to negotiate directly with North Korea and Iran was a colossal policy failure that had created “a total mess.” (North Korea tested nuclear devices in 2006 and 2009.)
ElBaradei added that if Israel, which neither confirms nor denies having a sizable nuclear arsenal of its own, follows through on threats to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities it would backfire. He said Tehran would simply launch a “crash course” to get an atom bomb and “would turn the Middle East into a ball of fire.”