Interview : Hans Blix - American Policy might lead to new arms race

The Nation - Thursday, February 17, 2005

RETIRED, and holidaying in Patagonia, Hans Blix was standing in a queue at a bus station when he was told that someone called Kofi Annan was trying to reach him. The former Swedish foreign minister, a year away from his 70th birthday, headed to the nearest telephone booth to call back. It was a call that had momentous implications for him. The UN secretary-general wanted Blix, who had retired as director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to take charge of the United Nations Monitoring, Inspection and Verification Commission (Unmovic), then primarily tasked with disarming Iraq. Blix told Annan to get back to him if he couldn't find anyone else. The Iraq assignment was to become the keystone of Blix's career arch. The aborted mission brought him numerous bouquets and brickbats too. In Bangkok last week to deliver a lec¬ture for 'Bridges - Dialogue towards a culture of peace' hosted by the International Peace Foundation, Blix took time out at the Dusit Thani Hotel to hold forth on a plethora of subjects close to his hear Going by the rhetorical outpourings over Iran’s nuclear programme, do you think 2005 is emerging as the year of Iran? Looks like it, doesn't it. [US Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice was saying the other day that war is not an option at this juncture. But then, politicians will always say that. If you ask them, 'Do you rule out war?' they'll say All options are open'. It seems the US is banking on Western Europe to get the talks going. They would also like the issue of Iran's nuclear pro-gramme referred to the UN Security Council. Rice was saying the other day that Iran must live up to its international obliga¬tions. The Iranians will say they do. There is no obligation on them under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty [NPT] not to enrich uranium. They have the right to do so. And they'll say they are enrich¬ing uranium only to produce fuel for their power reactors just like Germany, Brazil and Japan, who have also signed onto the NPT, but have enriching capability. The US is saying it is not confident that Iran's enrichment is only for fuel, but [could be] for weapons purposes. How do you prove that? In effect what the US and others are telling the Iranians is that it will be wiser if they altogether abstain from enrichment. Because if you can enrich to 5 per cent [pure uranium], you can also enrich to 90 or 95 per cent. I agree with that reasoning. But if they have to abstain from some-thing which is their right, they could ask for something in return. The minimum is to be assured supply of enriched ura¬nium for their reactors. They may also ask for more: better investment, mem¬bership of the ITO [World Trade Organisation] and security guarantees that they will not be attacked. So it's in the diplomatic bazaar right now. And that's better than not being in the diplomatic bazaar. Do you think the war in Iraq sends the message to some countries that they would be safer of they had nuclear weapons? Will they be protected from military strikes by having nuclear weapons? I'm not sure of that. The US presumes North Korea has nuclear weapons. But is that what protects them? I don't think so. I think it is more the fact that the North could retaliate against South Korea if the US sends cruise missiles to hit their instal¬lations. North Korea doesn't need nuclear weapons. Ordinary artillery would be enough. Iran is also a difficult case. The Americans would not know where the Iranian stocks are hidden to carry out strikes. Iran could also fire long-range missiles and strike at Israel. Can the US invade that country? They can't do that. The Iranian people may prefer a less total¬itarian regime than what they have, but any attack by the US or Israel would rally everyone, unlike Iraq which was a divided nation. In this cat-and-mouse game of WMD-seekers and UN monitors, do arms inspections really work? Vice President Dick Cheney apparently once said they were useless at best. Yes, they work. The first IAEA inspec¬tions in Iraq in 1991 discovered a pro-gramme that was large, and which we had not seen under the old verification system. Many people in the US wanted to put the blame on the IAEA. They said the nuclear watchdog had failed. However, neither the CIA, Mossad nor other intelligence agencies had a clue about it. After 1991, we undertook steps for more effective verification. The addition-al protocols gave the inspectors much greater rights. Notably, they can go to sites which have not been declared, and they can take environmental samples. I was in charge of the IAEA when we discovered what was going on in North Korea by sample analysis. But it is ideal to have cooperation between intelligence and inspection. The IAEAis not an espionage organization. In the case of Libya, a German ship was seized carrying centrifuges. But that was an intelligence input. Although I doubt Libya would have progressed far, they are nowhere near the technological levels of the Iranians or the North Koreans. Did you get that kind of intelligence input when you went into Iraq? Yes. There was an expert who was at the receiving end of intelligence. In the case of Iraq we had intelligence from the US, Britain, France and others. That was why we became suspicious about the quality of intelligence. Because, when we visited dozens of sites based on their tip-offs, in no case did we find any weapons of mass destruction. And that's the time we asked ourselves: how good is this intel¬ligence?' What was your opinion of Colin Powell's famous presentation to the security Council about Iraq's WMD? I referred the evidence to our experts. And they found it very doubtful. That's why I went back to the Security Council, but we couldn't check the authenticity of the telephone interceptions. They [the US] intercept a lot of telephone calls; they spend billions of dollars on it. . There were reports that IAEA chief Mohamed El Baradei's office was probably bugged. Do you think your tele¬phone was being tapped? Probably. I always joked that if they had bugged my telephone, at least they should have listened more carefully to what I had to say. Did you ever get the impression the Iraq war was planned even before the inspections resumed? It was planned. But the timing was not determined. Some people say the inspec¬tions were a charade. But we must remember, it is the US president who makes the decision. Cheney would have wanted the war, [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld too probably, and [Deputy Defense Secretary Paul] Wolfowitz certainly. But Bush probably kept his options open. I remember, in 1991, Clinton sent bombers towards Iraq but he called them back when Kofi Annan succeeded in some diplomatic manoeuvre. The president, as the commander-in-chief, can stop the train and say something has happened: maybe 'Saddam is converting to Catholicism or he is promising to open up completely'. But, I think, in the case of Iraq, they set the train in motion by sending more and more men and materiel. Maybe they had set a final date. But surely three months of inspec¬tions weren't sufficient to reach any conclusion? I agree. It was an unreasonably short time. We had 700 inspectors, visiting some 500 sites. The inspections were going well. The Iraqis were admitting us wherever we wanted to go. Three months was an absurdly short time. I suspect it could have had something to do with the weather in that part of the world. The US had some 200,000 soldiers in Kuwait. Having so many people in a desert where it was getting hotter and hotter, and the prospects of fighting a war with protective suits, was not going to be easy. They probably set a final date: If we have a dramatic change [finding evidence of WMD] by the middle of March, we go in. But [even] if we don't have that, then that's the time we march in.' You mentioned in one interview that the Bush administration leaned on you. What form did that take? That was towards the end. I'd say most of the time the relations were cordial with Bush, Rice and [then-secretary of state Colin] Powell. In March, the assistant secretary of state who handled Unmovic came into my office, tossed some photo-graphs on my table, and said: 'Why don't you report that?' They were photographs of a drone and a cluster bomb. Our inspec¬tors had seen them but we hadn't con¬cluded they were weapons of mass destruction. If the drone had a range of 150 kilometres and was intended for dis¬semination of biological and chemical weapons, it was another matter. The clus¬ter bomb was debris from the past. But the US media made a lot of it. It was part of the public campaign that Iraq had WMD. It was heavy-handed behav¬iour and went far beyond what member states can do vis-a-vis international civil servants. The UN Charter states that member states must not exert undue influence on civil servants. We are the trustees of the UN, not the lapdogs of the US. How's the world going to address the problem of WMD proliferation? The issue o D remains a big prob¬lem. And no country has taken it more seriously than the US. They want to be the only superpower that matters. And they want to make sure than no lamb is equipped with any dangerous weapons. But we all have an interest in preventing the spread of WMDs. The US loves to talk of non-proliferation but they won't talk of disarmament. We would love to talk about doing away with all weapons. One of the most important problems is the one of the comprehensive test-ban treaty (CTBT). That has been negotiated for years. The US signed on but the Senate rejected it, mostly to spite Clinton because of their domestic politics. But today, if the US signs on for the CTBT, I'm sure China will, so will India, Pakistan and Iran. But they are talking of designing new weapons, a missile shield. If the US remains where it is, there is a danger the whole thing will collapse and we will move towards a new arms race. There is a projection that by 2035, China's GDP could be almost double that of the US. No country has more US government bonds than the Chinese. One can see an unease between these countries in the Asia-Pacific. Asia is growing. There's China and India. I hope the Chinese will be a better superpower than the ones we have had in the past. No one is so big any longer to be by themselves. Multilateralism is indispensable. The Americans are seeing it. The Americans should reduce the kind of disdain they have for the UN. Do you see a need to expand the Security Council to make it more representative of the present world? It is definitely desirable. But is it a pos¬sibility? In 1945, power was military power. But today, it's also economic power and the legitimacy of numbers of people. This speaks for huge states with big pop¬ulations. It wouldn't be a bad idea to have Germany and Japan. But the question is, would these countries going to sit on the Security Council only defending their national interests? It makes sense for newly inducted members to act on behalf of a group of nations. Cameroon, for instance, may not count much in terms of political or economic power. But if it rep-resents a group of nations and their posi¬tion, its views will carry more weight. The other question is one of voting. Is it proper for a country to offer US $ 50 million [Btl.9 billion] in technical assis¬tance to another if they vote a particular way? We've had too much of that kind of horse-trading. The Iraq war really split the UN, didn't it? The world public opinion and that of the UN General Assembly was that the Iraq war was not justified under the Charter. The good is that Saddam Hussein is gone and the seeds of democ¬racy have been sown. But it's also been at great cost to the Iraqis. The alternative would have been to remain and continue to monitor. Presumably, Saddam would have remained in power but he would have been more like castrated. Did you ever meet Saddam? Never. I don't think he would ever look at such lowly creatures. In one of your interviews, you hit out at 'bastards in Washington'. Going by the language, you must have been really incensed. No, I didn't say it that way. I'm most¬ly a courteous person. It was an inter-view, a kind of chat with a journalist, which had gone on for too long. She asked: 'How do you react to this smear cam¬paign against you?' I said offhand: 'Some bastards do these things.' I wouldn't have said it on television. I was not thinking of people in the Pentagon. I had some other characters in mind. But she published it. Some people who read it, came and said: 'How could you have used language like that?' Others came and said: 'My God! Wonderful. At long last you really said it.' It was just a slip of the tongue, nothing more. Did you feel a sense of vindication when the Iraqi Survey Group appoint¬ed by the US wound up not finding any WMD? Of course. But I have wondered what else we could have done to impress upon the US that the intelligence did not hold water. I talked to Blair and Rice. I told them we were not impressed with the intelligence. But that was not enough. How much can you scream? Should I shout., 'You are bastards' for them to lis¬ten to me? You always seem to absolve Blair for the Iraq war despite him being a comrade in arms of the US? I've had many conversations with Blair on the subject. I could see he was very genuine in his reaction. The oppression in Iraq played a big role for him. It has not been analysed much, but I believe he was also motivated by a desire to bridge the gap between Europe and the US. If the UK had not supported the war, the gulf would have widened. Of course, it's also possible that if the UK had not support¬ed it, the US may not have gone ahead with the war. But I like Blair for some of his other policies: he's strong in Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation, on global warming and he's pro-Europe. Talking of global warming, the Bush administration's position seems to be that the jury is still out on the science of climate change. There are scientists who say it is cycli¬cal. But if there are 90 per cent who say it is manmade, and 10 per cent who believe otherwise, a prudent politician would fol¬low the 90 per cent. I hope there will be a greater push for the use of nuclear power. It is going to be indispensable. A city like Shanghai is not going to meet its electricity needs through wind or solar power. There has been atremendous increase in the con¬sumption of electricity. You see nuclear power as a solution for global warming? But is it safe? It is going to be indispensable. Nothing is 100 per cent safe. Nuclear power has come a long way since the 1970s. The Chernobyl type of reactor had some defects in its construction. But it's much safer now. Of course, there will be prob¬lems and small accidents like in Japan. But nothing big. The Iraqis called you a homosexu¬al who travelled to Washington every two weeks to take orders. And some in Washington called you inept, soft and too compliant with the Iraqis. To what extent did the Iraq assignment change your life? It was a tremendous challenge: of organisation, of diplomacy. There was nothing personal. I never felt slighted, frustrated or pained by the smear campaign. In the end there was a bit of sadness that they did not listen to us and about the contempt and disdain that some in the US showed towards the UN. But it also brought me lots of appreciation. The New York Times devoted an editorial to me when I left New York. That's quite a good prize.