Mohamed ElBaradei, Director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), believes the world is on the brink of a new nuclear arms race. North Korea could start nuclear tests any time. Iran is also due to build its own bomb shortly. And the United States, for fear of terrorism, is eagerly playing with fire, too.

[Stern] Mr. ElBaradei, talks have started in Beijing with North Korea on the country’s nuclear weapons program. Russia is already setting up refugee camps should war break out on the Siberian border. Are we on the brink of a nuclear war?

[ElBaradei] North Korea is currently representing the biggest threat. Nearly everything that is evil seems to come together in North Korea: the country is in the middle of deep economic crisis. People are starving. The US Army is, so to speak, standing next door, in South Korea. North Korea wants to survive. To this end, it needs security guarantees and economic aid.

[Stern] And in order to get this aid, Kim Jong-Il is playing around with the nuclear bomb?

[ElBaradei] I think someone like him is terribly afraid of a regime change . . . [ellipses as published throughout]

[Stern] . . . as we have just seen in Iraq . . .

[ElBaradei] He is now trying to get the most out of the situation for himself. This nuclear blackmail demonstrates a very alarming development: war was waged on Iraq because of assumed weapons of mass destruction. But there are talks under way with North Korea, on its nuclear program. This is nothing but a call for emulation.

[Stern] Does North Korea have the nuclear bomb?

[ElBaradei] We do not know for sure. But it is not important either. We know that the country has weapons-grade plutonium. This can be used to produce nuclear bombs, within just a few months. And it has the missiles for them.

[Stern] This sounds as if the threat was rather acute.

[ElBaradei] The world has become more dangerous. Today, we feel much more insecure than during the times of the Cold War. Many states feel threatened — above all, in regions of conflict such as Southeast Asia or the Middle East. We have to assume that Israel has the bomb, as a result of which other countries in the region feel defenseless.

[Stern] How great is the risk that weapons of mass destruction are disseminated over the whole world?

[ElBaradei] In the past, nuclear weapons were seen as a deterrent, they were the final step . . .

[Stern] . . . that guaranteed mutual destruction.

[ElBaradei] Yes. Today, there are serious discussions about the actual use of nuclear weapons. In the past 10 years, at least two new nuclear powers have emerged: India and Pakistan, two countries that are bitter enemies. Today, nuclear weapons are more in demand than ever. Dictators also want to survive.

[Stern] Is this also true for the regime of the mullahs in Iran?

[ElBaradei] For years, UN inspectors have been checking facilities there. Nevertheless, nearly a year ago a secret nuclear facility was discovered in the town of Natanz — of which the inspectors knew nothing.

[Stern] Is Iran working on nuclear weapons?

[ElBaradei] This is what we are trying to verify at the moment.

[Stern] The facility in the desert near Natanz has been used to enrich uranium. Why was its construction kept secret if it was officially a civilian plant?

[ElBaradei] Natanz is indeed the critical point of our inspections. Here it is possible to produce weapons-grade material. We have taken samples and found traces of highly enriched uranium on centrifuges. . .

[Stern] . . . which is, in addition to plutonium, the basic material for a nuclear bomb.

[ElBaradei] This worries us greatly. Should it turn out that Iran is not using its nuclear program for peaceful purposes, this could have disastrous consequences.

[Stern] What are your Iranian partners telling you?

[ElBaradei] They say these are gas-powered ultracentrifuges that were already polluted when delivered.

[Stern] From where does the equipment originate?

[ElBaradei] We are unable to say at this point.

[Stern] Pakistan is regarded as one of the main suppliers in the Iranian nuclear weapons program.

[ElBaradei] We cannot rule that out. Iran must disclose everything and cooperate with us.

[Stern] Are we seeing the beginning of a new nuclear arms race?

[ElBaradei] The technology has long since been in place. Countries are trading their knowledge and corresponding commodities on the black market. Export controls are not particularly effective. Above all, however, nuclear weapons have become thoroughly attractive, because it suddenly appears that it will be possible to actually use them. We must reconsider our entire policy of banning the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

[Stern] A total of 188 states have committed to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

[ElBaradei] Nuclear weapons give you power. Those who have them assume to have more security. They look more and more legitimate. They are no longer outlawed.

[Stern] A few months ago, the US Senate resolved to finance research into so-called mini-nukes.

[ElBaradei] These are double standards. On the one hand, the United States says that the proliferation of nuclear weapons must be fought. On the other, it perfects its own arsenal. This is not acceptable. Under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty all states are committed to nuclear disarmament, including the United States. What is happening at the moment is the complete opposite. The US Administration demands from other states not to have any nuclear weapons, while it fills its own arsenals. Then, a few privileged ones will be covered by a nuclear umbrella — and the rest of the world is left to its own devices. In reality, however, there are no good or evil weapons of mass destruction. If we do not give up such double standards, we will have even more nuclear powers. We are at a turning point now.

[Stern] Is the United States, with its new armaments program, violating the treaty on the adherence of which it insists when others are concerned?

[ElBaradei] It is still just research. But this is bad enough. I think this is not in line with the treaty the United States has signed.

[Stern] Does it mean that the United States is actually fuelling the nuclear arms race in this way?

[ElBaradei] The five nuclear powers must send a clear message to the world: we, too, disarm. We do not develop new nuclear weapons. Either we take the risk emanating from proliferation seriously or we have to live with the consequences. So far, we rather act like firemen: Iraq today, North Korea tomorrow, and Iran the day after. And then?

[Stern] But the United States believes that the nuclear threat effectively helps to protect itself against terrorists — rather than by agreements no one keeps.

[ElBaradei] The agreements have always had just half-hearted support. In addition, there are a whole lot of other and very effective weapons. It is an illusion to believe that terror can be fought with military means alone. Its reasons are poverty, social injustice, and the suppression of human rights in brutal dictatorships. Dictatorships that acquire weapons of mass destruction.

[Stern] This is your vision. How do you want to avert the dangers existing today?

[ElBaradei] We need more rights for UN inspectors.. They must get access to all facilities, unannounced and unhindered. Do you know how many states signed the relevant protocol? Just 35 of 188.

[Stern] Assuming all had signed?

[ElBaradei] States should undertake to put their uranium enrichment facilities under international control. This is the key technology on the way to nuclear weapons. Sanctions only protract things, they do not prevent the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction. And we finally need strict export controls.

[Stern] How quickly are terrorists able to produce a “dirty bomb”?

[ElBaradei] This is not particularly difficult. All you need is TNT and a radioactive material. There are a great number of radioactive sources in the world that are insufficiently secured. Dirty bombs are no weapons of mass destruction. They are weapons of mass terror.

[Stern] Who is to assume responsibility in the struggle against nuclear terrorism?

[ElBaradei] This, too, will be possible only with the help of the United Nations. But the power of the world community is limited today. The UN Security Council must not remain a nuclear power club. It must be extended to include countries such as Japan, Germany, India, and Brazil.. Neither does it help to pave the way by force. This is what we are currently experiencing in Iraq. We are all losing there: the United States, the United Nations, and, again, the Iraqis themselves. The United Nations is no moral authority in Iraq.

[Stern] Why not?

[ElBaradei] Over a period of 10 years, the UN economic embargo punished the people, rather than the regime. The population was at the mercy of the sanctions. The United Nations is not seen as an organization that wants to help Iraq. This is probably the reason for the dreadful attack carried out in Baghdad last week. Sanctions must punish dictators, not ordinary people.

[Stern] And how is that supposed to happen?

[ElBaradei] There must be no difference between dictators that are friendly toward the West and so-called evil ones. Forbid them to travel. Freeze their foreign wealth. Force dictators to carry out reforms.

[Stern] Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction were the material reason for the war. None have been found to date. Has the world been led by the nose?

[ElBaradei] It is a shame that we were unable to finish our work. Now, it may turn out that no weapons existed in the first place, and war could have been avoided.

[Stern] Now, with hindsight, do you feel you have been used?

[ElBaradei] No, not really. Experience in Iraq shows that intelligence service information has to be taken with a grain of salt. Do we really want to wage war on every country that is suspected of developing weapons of mass destruction? I think that inspections can really help. This, however, requires time and patience. Meaningful inspections can prevent a nuclear holocaust.

Mohamed ElBaradei isDirector of the International Atomic Energy AgencyThis interview appeared in Germany in Hamburg Stern, major independent, illustrated weekly magazine, on 28 August 2003. The interviewers were Katja Gloger and Hans-Hermann Klare. [FBIS Translated Text]