IAEA Chief: Iran has questions to answer if wants to be free of suspicion

Iran’s controversial nuclear ambition has cast a cloud over the Middle East. No one’s backing down in Tehran, but a new president may create a window of opportunity for the long-stalled nuclear talks. The only agency that can shed light on what is happening inside Iran is the International Atomic Energy Agency, since it can actually step into the country's nuclear facilities. At least into some of them. Yukiya Amano, IAEA director-general, is our guest on SophieCo.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: So you know the newly-elected Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, personally, because he used to be a nuclear negotiator. What do you think of him, what kind of person is he?

Yukia Amano: He is a person with a very good knowledge of nuclear issues, and I am looking forward to working with the new government of Iran. The IAEA is committed to resolving the Iran nuclear issues through dialogue and diplomatic means. We will continue our dialogue.

Sophie Shevardnadze: Would you say he’s easy to talk to?

Yukia Amano: We don’t know yet, and the role of the IAEA agency is not to speculate, but we will continue the dialogue, constructive dialogue, with Iran to find the concrete solution.

Sophie Shevardnadze: Above all you’re a very experienced diplomat, and now you’re the head of the IAEA. What does your instinct tell you? Is this someone, President Rouhani, that can move the Iranian nuclear negotiations from a deadpoint?

Yukia Amano: There are a lot of elements on this issue, we have a long history, and this is a very complicated issue, so the best thing for now is not to speculate, but to start to resume dialogue with them, and then things get clearer. For now I don’t have that clear prospect, but by having contact with the new government, I think we will have better prospects for the future.

Sophie Shevardnadze: What about for right now, can you clarify for us where you’re at – Iran and the agency – what is your main stumbling point?

Yukia Amano: There are a couple of issues, and as Mr Jalili has said in the past, yes, we have our differences, but these differences are not the obstacle to reach agreement. I am discussing with Iran, having that in mind. We have our differences, but it is not impossible to fill the gap, and we will continue with the discussion. A this stage we are not entering into discussion with Iran on particular issues, like when to meet, and where to meet, but definitely we’ll have discussions with them.

Sophie Shevardnadze: Would you mind telling us what the main difference is. I’ll tell you why, because we hear a lot in the press about the talks going in circles, “we have differences”, but no one really understands what exactly is the difference. Do you mind telling us?

Yukia Amano: Unfortunately, I cannot tell the details. The reason is that I am negotiating with Iran, and in the practice of diplomacy, we do not disclose the details of ongoing negotiations. If I do that, I lose their confidence, and no one wants to negotiate with me, or with the IAEA. Nevertheless, I have been saying that the IAEA needs to be able to undertake effective negotiation. We need to do our job, and if our hands are tied too much, then we cannot do the job. And if we cannot do the job, it is not to the benefit of Iran, nor the IAEA, nor the international community. How to organize the effective verification is the crucial point.

Sophie Shevardnadze: Benjamin Netanyahu says that Iran is very close to getting a nuclear bomb, the red line is almost there. Obama has a somewhat different assessment of this issue. What is your assessment? I know you cannot speculate, but surely you have your own thoughts.

Yukia Amano: We are not making an analysis of weapon-making. We are the international organization to verify the peaceful nature of activities. For that angle we have been verifying Iran’s nuclear activities, which are under IAEA safeguards. These activities under IAEA safeguards are staying in a peaceful purpose. What we are observing is that Iran’s capacity to produce enriched uranium is increasing. The amount of enriched uranium produced is also increasing. On the other hand, we do not understand perfectly the undeclared activities, and this is the problem.

Sophie Shevardnadze: You know why I am asking about assessment and speculations, because I was reading a lot of articles beforehand, and two very well-respected independent analysts predict that, most probably, Iran is very close and will reach the critical capability very soon, and will have at least one bomb before any Western intelligence agency or the IAEA will know about it. What if you miss the bomb?

Yukia Amano: There are various elements, but we think that if there is a big change, we can detect it in a reasonable amount of time. Regarding the amount of enriched uranium, of future developments, it depends on various elements. How many centrifuges they use, whether Iran does the conversion from enriched uranium to another form, so there are various elements to estimate what will be the amount of enriched uranium in storage, so that is the reason why I say we cannot speculate.

Sophie Shevardnadze: Out of all the nuclear facilities in Iran, which one raises your concern most of all?

Yukia Amano: I would not say our concern, but again I would like to say that a certain number of facilities are under safeguards. I do not have a good knowledge of undeclared activities. So this is the first point. Second, regarding the declared activities, we continue to verify that they stay within a peaceful purpose, but the capacity is increasing for the enrichment of uranium. In addition the construction of a heavy water reactor is making progress. These are the facts.

Sophie Shevardnadze: Is it fair to say that at this particular point, your agency doesn’t have proof that Iran wants to make a bomb?

Yukia Amano: We have never said that Iran has nuclear weapons. We have never said that Iran has decided to have nuclear weapons, to develop nuclear weapons. What we have said is that Iran has questions to which they have to answer. Without them clarifying these questions, we cannot give them a clean bill of health. This is where we stand now.

Sophie Shevardnadze: Have you personally been to Iran? Have you seen these facilities?

Yukia Amano: Yes. Yes, I visited Iran before I became the director general, and I went to Iran after I became the director general, and I had a discussion with Mr Jahlili.

Sophie Shevardnadze: Russia is helping Iran fulfill its nuclear ambitions, but at the same time, it is the main facilitator in talks and negotiations with the West. Would you say its activity is more of a help or a hindrance?

Yukia Amano: First regarding the negotiations, the P5+1, the 5 countries which are permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, and Germany, are having discussions with Iran. Russia is of course a very important member of this P5+1 discussion with Iran. Russia has an important role. I hope that the P5+1 negotiations will make good progress.

Sophie Shevardnadze: So it’s okay with you that Russia is helping Iran to fulfill its nuclear ambitions?

Yukia Amano: Russia is an important partner for the IAEA, Russia is a very important member of the IAEA, Russia is a member of the P5+1 dialogue, and this P5+1 dialogue is a very important one.

Sophie Shevardnadze: Mr Amano, your predecessor, Mohammad al-Baradei, actually said that notwithstanding what you think of Iran’s position, you need to address their sense of insecurity, which means that Iran is surrounded by countries with nuclear capabilities, and they have the presence  of American troops in the region, so they feel like they need to somehow answer to that. What do you say to that?

Yukia Amano: My predecessor, Mohammad al-Baredai, had his approach and I deeply respect him. Myself, I am focusing  on the basic objectives of the IAEA, and with regard to non-proliferation, my responsibility is to verify that all the materials are for a peaceful purpose. Of course, we have other important objectives, like technical cooperation, nuclear power, but with respect to Iran nuclear issues, providing factual information, impartial information to member states to facilitate their judgment is the most important thing for me.

Sophie Shevardnadze: You’ve stated so many times that you only want to focus on the technical part, but the unfortunate truth is that you are under the limelight, because whatever you say results in political discussions. For example, there are some, like Israel, which would rather have a direct confrontation with Iran. How do you protect your agency from bomb Iran lobby?

Yukia Amano: The important thing for me is to stay impartial and factual. In order to stay impartial and factual, I have to stick to the principle. What is our principle for non-proliferation? It is to respect the rules, and in the case of non-proliferation, comprehensive safeguard agreements are the standard. Also ,if there are any UN Security Council resolutions, that is also a rule. What I am asking of all countries, not only Iran, is to freely implement the rules. By sticking to this neutral, fair standard, I can stay neutral. Of course, I believe that the IAEA is a technical organization, but, as you mentioned, the environment we are working in is very political. Therefore it is important to respect the principle, I would say, that the IAEA is a technical organization that is working in a very political environment.

Sophie Shevardnadze: So let’s say, if Israel, or when Israel strikes Iran, will IAEA in any way feel responsible, no, not responsible, guilty? Because this is a big possibility.

Yukia Amano: I do not speculate, but for now what I am doing is trying to resolve the issue by diplomatic means. It is not good for me to make comments on hypothetical questions.

Sophie Shevardnadze: SIPRI, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, estimates that Israel already has around 80 nuclear bombs, which is pretty intimidating. I know you don’t speculate but this hinders your negotiation process with Iran. Maybe that’s why they’re still reluctant to talk and to negotiate and to make progress, because they’re thinking Israel has 80 nuclear bombs.

Yukia Amano: What Iran has to do, as well as other countries, which are members of the IAEA as non-nuclear weapon states, is to implement comprehensive safeguards, and that is the only thing  that I am asking Iran.

Sophie Shevardnadze: Do you think Israel should sign up for NPT?

Yukia Amano: That is a question you need to ask Israel, but it is clear that they have no intention of signing NPT for now.

Sophie Shevardnadze: Is the agency making any effort in that direction right now? Do you think we will ever see a nuclear-transparent Israel, because they are also very intimidated considering the countries they are surrounded with. They feel isolated and insecure as well.

Yukia Amano: The IAEA, and myself, have been supporting the nuclear weapon-free zone in the Middle East, and we are ready to help them. In 2001 the General Conference adopted the decision to ask the Director General to host a forum on nuclear weapon-free zone in the Middle East, and the objective was to learn from the experience of other nuclear weapon-free zones. In 2011, I hosted the forum and the Arab states, as well as Israel, participated. This is a very difficult issue and the position of countries are different. Still we could have a very constructive discussions. This shows that despite the differences, despite the historical background, we can sit and discuss this issue in a constructive way. Still it was not easy, it took some tears just to organize this forum. But I would just like to tell you that the IAEA is making a contribution to establish a nuclear weapon-free zone in the Middle East.

Sophie Shevardnadze: Israel and the United States list Iran as one of the main threats, and Israel is growing overconcerned. Because you know so much more than anyone else about what’s going on inside Iran, what would your advice to President Obama be? How should he proceed?

Yukia Amano: I think the most important thing for now is to build confidence. Restoring the international confidence is very important. Because of the lack of confidence, it is very difficult to take steps forward. In order to enhance our confidence, transparency is most needed.

Sophie Shevardnadze: So it’s really Iran’s job to give more transparency, not Obama’s job, but you would tell him to wait, not rush things, and maybe everything can be dealt with through diplomacy?

Yukia Amano: Diplomacy is the way that my organization is addressing it, and other countries including the United States are seeking the solution through diplomatic means, so the best thing for now is to encourage dialogues between P5+1,  IAEA and Iran.

Sophie Shevardnadze: You say that Iran should be more transparent, but I actually read in the press that Iran is accusing your agency of siding with America, and Israel, giving them information that only your agency could have access to. What do you say to that?

Yukia Amano: It has no basis at all.

Sophie Shevardnadze: Are you optimistic about where things are going now with Iran?

Yukia Amano: Again, I do not speculate. The advantage and strength of the IAEA is to be impartial. We are not the organization well-known for future speculation, future prospects. Our job is to go to the ground, send the inspectors on the ground, collect the information, share the precise, factual information with the member states, to facilitate their decision making.

Sophie Shevardnadze: You are here in Russia for a conference. What do you expect from the conference, do you think there will be any tangible results?

Yukia Amano: This conference is taking place in a very timely manner. Over two years have passed since the Fukushima accident. Russia is one of the leaders of nuclear technology. Lots of ministers and experts are attending this meeting so this is a very good opportunity to consider the future of nuclear power and I think a very good result will be achieved, I mean, a good understanding by member states will be worked out through this conference.