Unbowed, Blix still backs inspections for nuclear threats

National Catholic Reporter - Friday, March 04, 2005

Two years after the war in Iraq began, former chief U.N. arms inspector Hans Blix continues to call the war unjustified. He remains an unapologetic believer in the effectiveness of the international community to police hostile threats, such as nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Inspections work, he says, when the international community cooperates. But he also says the world has more to fear than weapons of mass destruction.

Blix headed the International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna, from 1981 to 1997 and was executive chairman of the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) from March 2000 to June 2003. He now chairs the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, a Swedish-funded endeavor to find ways to reduce the dangers from nuclear, biological, chemical and weapons. For work with this commission, Blix was in Bangkok, Thailand, in February when he sat down with NCR contributor Daniel Kestenholz.

NCR: History has proven you right. Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction. You have said the war was unjustified. Should you have pushed this view more?

Hans Blix: It was not for us [the U.N. inspection team] to decide. We were an instrument of the Security Council. We were asked by them to inspect and to report objectively. That is what we did and I think that our reports had a profound influence on Germany and France and the majority of the Security Council. The U.S. and the U.K. chose to ignore them and to base their action upon their intelligence. But the rest of the council was impressed by the reports we submitted and that’s why they said they wanted inspections to continue. We didn’t want an invasion; we wanted inspections.

You called the Iraq war a witch-hunt.

Yes. The leaders of the U.S. and the U.K. had a preconceived idea that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and they looked at all the evidence in that light. They were therefore not sufficiently critical in their examination of the evidence.

Have the Americans begun a new witch-hunt against Iran?

Yes. The U.S. asserts that Iran has decided to go for nuclear weapons. The IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] says that they do not have evidence of that. I think the Western European countries are highly suspicious, but I do not think that they have reached the certainty of the Americans. And perhaps it doesn’t make much difference. Everybody agrees that it is desirable to persuade Iran to refrain from enriching uranium. Iran should be persuaded that having that capability would increase tension in the region. Arabs don’t want Iran to have this capability because it would give even less chance that Israel would give up its nuclear capabilities.

But to get Iran committed not to enrich, something has to be offered. This is what the United Kingdom, Germany and France are doing. They are offering an assurance of supply and other carrots like investment possibilities or support for Iran’s membership in the World Trade Organization.

Also important is a “negative security guarantee,” as it is called, the promise that they will not be attacked by military means provided they live up to their commitment.

Can the IAEA guard against proliferation of nuclear weapons?

Yes. It is appointed to do this job under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. It has 200 inspectors who are professionals and who go to the world’s peaceful nuclear installations and verify that no nuclear material is diverted. Under new inspection rules, they can also go to non-declared nuclear installations. But the important point is these new inspection rules have to be accepted by everybody. They are accepted now by the European Union members, by Japan and South Korea. The Iranians have said that they have signed them and that they will apply them. But they have not yet ratified them. They need to be ratified by all countries that have any nuclear activities.

Even in the Iraq affair, it has been shown that the IAEA inspections were right. The procedures were correct. It was intelligence that was wrong.

The IAEA does not have any physical power. It is not a police force. But it can carry out effective inspections and verify what allegations are right and what are wrong. In North Korea, it was the IAEA inspections that discovered and gave evidence that the North Koreans had more plutonium than they had declared. They couldn’t establish how much more, but they could see that North Korea had not been giving correct information to the agency. There is a lot you can do with modern inspection techniques.

Can Iran be stopped from building nuclear weapons?

That’s a question of their will. The Iranians claim they do not want nuclear weapons, that they want to enrich uranium to make fuel for their reactors. They don’t want to be dependent on any foreign country to supply them with the fuel. Clearly if they can enrich to [fuel grade] they can enrich to [bomb grade]. Therefore they can have a nuclear capability if they make that decision. It’s a question of will.

Does North Korea have the bomb?

We don’t know. In the IAEA, we used to say that they are secretive about what they are doing either because they have much more than they admit or because they have much less. They might be bluffing. I think that the West is doing the right thing in negotiating both with North Korea and the Iranians.

Is the world becoming a more dangerous place?

There is an escalation of rhetoric. Journalists ask the United States if they rule out military force [against Iran]; they answer that at this juncture it is not on the agenda but nothing is ruled out. It makes good headlines. The media likes those headlines. Politicians like headlines too. But on neither side should we lose our critical sense. Take the case of the weapons of mass destruction; many people say this is the greatest danger in the world today. It is a very big one. I am the chairman of a commission discussing weapons of mass destruction. But is this really the greatest threat we have today? If you ask an African, they worry about hunger, about AIDS. I am as worried about global warming as I am about weapons of mass destruction. I think global environmental problems are overwhelmingly important. That is why I am in favor of nuclear power.

The Americans are not terribly interested in global warming, whereas [British Prime Minister Tony] Blair clearly takes that very seriously. Blair also takes the poverty and misery of Africa very seriously. In the United States, 9/11 still plays an enormous role. Bush took a strong stand and he gained on it politically. The Republicans concluded that the American people want the executive to deal very firmly with terrorists. And they gain on it politically. They probably won the election on it.

What do you think of Iraq now?

I think we all welcomed the elections, because it gives them a government with a greater degree of legitimacy. I think the larger than expected participation is an expression of the Iraqi people who felt powerless for a long time. I hope we can see a governmental authority that will develop security forces and that they will get a constitution that assures participation for all the relevant groups. And that they then get a government that is broadly elected including the Sunnis. And that we will then see a departure of the U.S. occupation. It would be useful if the United States would declare that they do not want to have any bases there. If they say that they have no such ambition then their claim that they want to establish an independent government and democracy would be more credible.

Is the world better off with Saddam out of power?

Above all we wish a happy end for Iraq. I felt that the rationales for the war, the weapons of mass destruction, were not justified. Nor was the rationale that they should stop terrorists justified. One gain from the war is that they eliminated the regime of Saddam Hussein, which was one of the most murderous and brutal in the whole world. And maybe, let’s hope, democracy will come. But those gains have come at very high prices in terms of dead and injured Iraqis and the number of Americans killed.

So it’s a mixed result. It’s a blessing that Saddam is gone. Let us hope that they move to democracy, but never let us fool ourselves about the rationales as they were.