US hawks would go to great lengths to undermine nuclear settlement with Iran - ex-IAEA head

The latest negotiations over Iran's nuclear program are entering their final days - the deadline set for November 24. Officials say there are many obstacles – but they also could yield an end to sanctions on Iran. How likely is that to happen? What forces influence the leaders in Tehran and Washington? And with America so worried of Iran having nuclear weapons – how big a threat are nuclear armaments in modern world? We talk to former IAEA Director General and UN Chief Weapons Inspector in Iraq Hans Blix on Sophie&Co.

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Sophie Shevarnadze: Hans Blix, ex-head of IAEA, former UN weapons inspector for Iraq, welcome to the program, it’s great to have you with us once again. Now, will a deal on Iran’s nuclear program be agreed before the November 24 deadline – what are your thoughts?

Hans Blix: Well, I very much hope that they will be able to reach an agreement that settles this issue, and I think that the major problems have been solved. If it looks very hard and it’s uncertain where it goes – one reason may be that parties in the negotiations always press very hard at the last minute to show that they’ve got the most, but actually it seems to me that over the year and with a plan of action that they’ve adopted last year, they have come a long way. In particular, it has been recognized that Iran has a right and reason to go for nuclear power program. They want to sell their oil and use nuclear power to generate electricity, just the same way as Abu-Dhabi does, building 4 nuclear power plants. Now, with a big agreement with Russia to continue, to build further plants Bushehr and maybe further plants thereafter, with delivery of fuel for them, a new element has entered into the picture –an element that I think is favorable.

SS: Now, Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani expressed confidence that the deal will be reached. President Obama on the other hand, has said that there are plenty of unresolved issues to work on. So, what’s going on?

HB: Both of them have heavy pressure on themselves. In the U.S., they have a very strong lobby, the so-called AIPAC that wouldn’t want to have any agreement at all, that in the past have urged the U.S. government to bomb any nuclear installations in Iran. Behind AIPAC you have Israel, who doesn’t want Iran to have any nuclear installations at all. So, Obama has to pay attention to the political pressure under which he works in the U.S., that’s considerable. For Rouhani and for the Iranians, I think there’s also a great element of pride. They have had nuclear scientific program for many years, and they have been quite successful, they’ve build up this industry, they could also tell themselves that they need to be self-reliant, because at the time when they had a revolution, deliveries of nuclear materials and technology from the Western world was stopped. So, they said “We cannot rely upon anybody else; we have to build this up by ourselves.” They are proud that they have succeeded in doing this, and one reason why there are suspicions against Iran is that the dimension of what they have built up was so large, particular in enrichment that many people doubted that this could be only for peaceful purposes. The Iranians, however, I think, have a strong pride that they have achieved this and I don’t think that they will easily walk back from that. They don’t like to swallow their pride, even though, especially now with help from Russia they might need to have less indigence and rely more upon import from Russia.

SS: Also Iran has repeated again and again that it doesn’t want any nuclear weapon and there’s no evidence it has actually had nuclear weapons program for the last 10 years. But at the same time it’s not providing information on two sites. Why does it keep acting as though it has something to hide?

HB: There can always be allegations about what you have. I was responsible for the inspections in Iraq during the 90s about their nuclear activities and you can always have a new allegations that something is going on, that something has happened, that you must clarify it. There may be a limit to how much you can explain. The Iranians have in the course of time explained a great deal. They have actually been more open for inspections than they are obliged to be under the normal protocol, but they also say “No” sometimes, and the Parchin site which is a huge military site of military production, they have allowed the IAEA to come, but they want the agency to come in repeatedly. Now, this could conceivably that they have something to hide, but I went on there 10 years ago, I don’t know, but there’s nothing of recent, but it could also be that they don’t want to have international inspectors milling around in a big military establishment. I could imagine, for instance, that the Americans would not let international inspectors come milling around in Los Alamos. It’s hard to say, there could have been something in the past, but its far back, and I think that it should certainly be more important for the world to insure the conditions for the future that all the inspections and the openness and transparency is adequate for the future, rather than digging into the past. In the plan of action that was adopted last year, they also talk about inquiries in the past and they decided then that there would be a joint commission after an agreement, and the joint commission would have as a task into IAEA, to look into historical problems. So I don’t think that should be a real problem today.

SS: Here’s another interesting fact. According to the Wall Street Journal report, in a secret letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei last month, Obama cited the two nations’ common interest in fighting ISIS, but said such cooperation depends on reaching the nuclear accord. Now, what’s the point in tying Iran’s nuclear issue to the issue of ISIS?

HB: It doesn’t have a direct link, it is clear. I think there are many common interests between the West, especially the U.S., and Iran. ISIS is one of them. We know Iran cooperated with the U.S. about Afghanistan at some time, and I think the U.S. would also want to have assurances that Iran is not actively supporting subversion or terrorism anywhere, links to Hezbollah in Lebanon – it has been a sore point and frequent allegations that Iran should be behind one thing or another… Whether these are real or not it’s hard to say, but there is a very big, should we say, overriding foreign policy request in the Middle East and that is if Iran comes back to being a strong economic and political power, this is something that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States worry about and certainly Israel worries about. For the U.S., on the other hand, Iran must look like a fairly stable country, a country whose theocratic regime and order is repugnant to the U.S., but nevertheless, the country with good stability compared to many other regimes in area – so, the U.S. must be aware of that, dealing with Iran is probably a lot more stable than dealing with Iraq. So, here, there are people in the region who are worried about any opening and settlement with the U.S., and they also work on the American Administration to not to go to such an agreement.

SS: Now, Obama is sending secret letters to Khamenei, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is finally acknowledging Iran’s rights to a peaceful nuclear program… if sanctions are lifted, Iran becomes a legitimate member of the international community once again. How is this going to affect the middle eastern power balance? Will it help bring more stability to the region or the other way around?

HB: In my view, it would be to the benefit of the stability. Clearly, the ISIS is a force that is repugnant to most people in the world. Many people may perhaps think that it is desirable that ISIS opposes the U.S., because there’s much anti-Americanism in the Middle East, but the manner in which they have gone about – their activities seem medieval, and I think, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Israel, everybody in the world… well, not everybody, but most people really wish to stop that kind of medieval activity. So, we will need an Assembly, a coalition against this, and Iran is a natural member of it, since ISIS is fanatic, some say it’s a fanatical Sunni opposed to any Shia, and Iran represents Shia faction. So, therefore I think there’s a natural link, natural basis for mutual support between Iran and the rest of the world against ISIS.

SS: The U.S. cannot lift its unilateral sanctions without the approval of Congress, and right now it is in opposition to the President – is it going to stall progress on the Iranian issue, what do you think?

HB: I hear Obama is in a very tight spot. On the one hand he realizes the desirability of settling relations with Iran and bringing Iran back into being a player – and not an easy one, not one with which they will agree on everything indeed – but nevertheless, a stable force. On the other hand, you have those who are fanatically opposed to a strengthened Iran. Sometimes I wonder even whether the weapons of mass destruction issue is not an artificial one. I mean, we saw in the case of Iraq how the U.S. political circles in Bush administration said that the great problem was Iraqi nuclear weapons – well, there were no nuclear weapons, but there was an issue on which they could rally an opposition to Iraq. Now, here, again, we see the lots of focusing upon a possible Iranian intention to make nuclear weapons. Maybe, behind that or at the side of that there is an even stronger intention or wish to prevent Iran from becoming economically strong and, in fact, that is as important as the one they worry – about the weapons.

SS: Now, mr. Blix, you already mentioned Israel’s role in Iran’s nuclear issue. Israel says the threat from Iran is bigger than from ISIS. Israel has the capacity to strike Iran’s nuclear installations and the Israeli leadership has previously threatened to do so. Could it carry out unilateral strikes?

HB: They could hardly do it alone, both technically and politically. It is true that they’ve attacked Osirak in Iraq, and they attacked also an installation in Syria, but Iran is a bigger fish to fry, so I doubt they will do it without any support and joining of the U.S. into the action.

SS:Israel’s nuclear program is a very badly kept secret, and you’ve said that the U.S. doesn’t have the desire or ability to stop it – why is that?

HB: They did have the desire to, at least, to stop it ,and it was a surprise. The U.S. did not want to see Israel as a nuclear weapon state. But it happened, and Nixon then got from Israel a promise that they would not acknowledge that they had a program. Israel has never acknowledged it quite openly, but it’s a public secret.

SS: We also know that North Korea has some form of nuclear weapons, clearly Japan and South Korea want a way to counter that, right? So, is there a danger of nuclear arms race in that region?

HB: Yes, I think that region is very, very much in danger of the North Korean program, and I think this forms a common interest between the U.S. and Japan and China. If the North Koreans want to behave more provocatively, even more provocatively than they have in the past; and they did provoke Japan a couple of years ago by sending a missile over Japan – then maybe there could be a risk that hawks in Japan would want Japan use its enormous supply of plutonium and make a nuclear weapon. If that were to happen – I don’t think it will happen, but it could happen – then, the relations between China and Japan will be even worse. You may also have South Korea wanting to have nuclear weapons. So, you could have proliferation in the Far East and that would be disastrous. I think that there is an understanding between China, U.S., Japan, South Korea and Russia that they must prevent that, but they didn’t succeed in doing so.

SS: What about the other states – India, Pakistan, Israel – the one that we mentioned – are they ever expected to disarm? I mean, will the nuclear non-proliferation regime simply continue to exist in the same way, and, if yes, is it even a viable regime?

HB: I don’t think anyone seriously expects India and Pakistan to do away with nuclear weapons. When India had got that weapons, I remember Bhutto, that leader in Pakistan who was later executed and said that he would rather “eat grass” than stay without nuclear weapons. So, they feel that as long as India has it, they will have it. And I think India will have it as long as China has it. So the long term possibility lies in a general nuclear disarmament – and this is what Kissinger and Shultz and Sam Nunn and Bill Perry advocated a few years ago, in 2008, that the U.S. and Russia should take the initiative to start nuclear disarmament and do it step by step. They did so, by the START agreement by 2010, but it ran into opposition both in the U.S. Senate and also among many Russian strategists that felt that Russia needed to have nuclear weapons. Yet, I think that is the way to go forward. There was a meeting in London between Medvedev and Obama in which they affirmed that, yes, they look for putting the Cold War behind themselves, and also look for, eventually, for a nuclear-free world. Well, that’s not exactly where we are today. We have a very severe… that’s not a Cold War, but certainly a Cold Peace, and I think it’s a very high-time that we get back to normal relations.

SS: Mr. Blix, do you think a nuclear bomb is the only way to ensure the security of a state in the XXI century?

HB: No, I think it is highly doubtful, whether a bomb really is useful in any longer, at least between the U.S. and the West and Russia and China. We learned from the Cuban crisis in 1962 that when it really came to the critical moment, both Khrushchev and Kennedy decided that they would not escalate further, they would not use even conventional weapons for the risk of getting into a nuclear duel. We see today that NATO is not injecting any lethal weapons into the Ukraine, I think they worry about an escalation, and Russia too will be very much aware of the danger of the further escalation. The end result of the nuclear duel is not acceptable to any people with sense in their heads and therefore they have to exercise restraint. Whether that would be true between, say, North Korea or an Al-Qaeda if it possesses nuclear weapon – that’s another matter. But, such uses would not lead to a world catastrophe – it would be horrible, but it won’t lead to world catastrophe. Between responsible states, like the U.S. and Russia, China – I think there is a realisation that nuclear weapons are not very useful. They are expensive, and even the military say that they would rather have the money for conventional weapons than nuclear weapons for which they have no use.

SS: Now, the U.S. is planning to spend $1 trnl dollars on the nukes in the next 30 years. Who are those weapons aimed at?

HB: I think they are aimed at the self-projection of power. The U.S. Congress is a lot more hawkish than the U.S. executive government. The executive government would like to have a new continuation of the START agreement, but the U.S. Congress is not willing at present time to even accept the comprehensive Test Ban treaty, the treaty that Russia, France and UK have accepted and China would accept. The Congress is very hawkish and I think they felt pleased with being the lone superpower that they became in the beginning of the 90s and they want to continue that – and they are. They are only military superpower, and they want to assure total military superiority in every area – in space, in conventional weapons and in nuclear weapons. They want to keep that pot frying. But it’s a very expensive endeavor and not a very useful one, and I give Obama credit for not wanting to go that road. He has been forced to do some of it, but I think this is not with a great will.

SS: Just recently, I spoke to professor Noam Chomsky and he said that a nuclear war between Russia and U.S. could be triggered by accident. Do you agree?

HB: Well, the risk is not zero. We know how the handling of nuclear weapons in the U.S .has sometimes been very deficient. We don’t know if there were similar things happening in Russia, but that is possible. Both sides have a strong interest in avoiding any mistakes in this handling, and the fewer nuclear weapons they have, the less the risks are.

SS: Now, in your recent interview….

HB: I want to add something about this cooperation between them – we have a very frosty period right now, but I think it has been important that we got the agreement about the Syrian chemical weapons. It demonstrated that despite the disagreements that we have in many other spheres, it was possible to sit down and iron it out on a particular issue. When Russia and U.S. have succeeded in doing that, then they’ve got permanent members of the UNSC to come along and the whole thing was moved from the risk of the unilateral U.S.-action into an international action, which the UNSC operated and the Organisation Against Chemical Weapons was engaged. It was the right way for the international community to operate. It was also to the advantage of Russia, I think, because for Russia it is no good that U.S. goes along as a lone policeman. For Russia it is better that they act in a UNSC, where Russia has a seat and has a say, and has veto right. So, the Syrian operation was excellent from this point of view.

SS: You’ve praised Barack Obama for passing this START treaty. Was that really that big of a step in a nuclear disarmament? What I mean is that what’s the point of Russia and the U.S. disarming if others don’t do it?

HB: The Russian stockpile and the American stockpiles are so vastly superior to the others, vastly bigger. In total there maybe something like 17000 nuclear weapons in the world, and the vast majority of them are Russian and American. It was a big thing to have, START, and I think it would be desirable to get a second START.

SS: Now, there’s a lot of skepticism lately about nuclear energy and much of it is due to the Fukushima meltdown. You were head of the International Atomic Energy Agency when Chernobyl happened and you know just how dangerous nuclear energy is. You’re saying a new reactor was recently designed and it can’t have a core meltdown. So, is nuclear safe now?

HB: Nuclear is becoming safer all the time. The first accident was on a 3-mile island, in 1979, and the world learned quite lot from that. They learned, for instance, that they ought to have special ventilation to release overpressure and at the same time filter out any radioactivity. In Sweden, we changed our reactors and made such ventilation. But, in Fukushima, they did not have those vents in their reactors – that was a mistake, they should have done that. And we have learned through the 80s and 90s to make nuclear power ever safer. I think we now have the reactors that you can be sure that there will be no release of radioactivity outside the reactors even if there were to be a core melt , and I’m pretty sure that there will also be reactors with which you will not be able to have a core melt at all. So the safety with the nuclear as a safety in aviation – it is improving all the time. Guaranteeing that risk is zero? No, I don’t think anyone would dare to do that. However, the risks are very-very small, and you have to compare the risks we have with nuclear power with the risks that may follow from the alternative generation of electricity. And there, of course, we have the great threat. The global warming is a result, in part, and in a big part, from the emission of Carbon Dioxide in atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuel – is the result of our over consumption of fossil fuels. This is what threatens the world with global warming in perhaps 100-200 years time. The nuclear threat is very-very minimal compared to that. I’m much more worried about the global warming than I am about the nuclear weapons.

SS: Mr. Blix, thank you very much for this interview, it was great to have you with us once again. We were talking to Hans Blix, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, also UN’s weapons inspector for Iraq. We were discussing whether Iran’s nuclear issue is close to resolution, and if the world’s nuclear powers will ever be ready to disarm. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next time.