Excerpts from an Interview with Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei on Sept. 7, 2007
On being a squash player:
Squash is a very fast game. You have to have very quick reflexes. You have to be cunning, because most of time you don’t see, your opponent is behind you, so you need to anticipate...
Are there lessons for life? For diplomacy, from what you learned in squash?
You have to give it your all.
Unfortunately I can not play squash right now. I’m too old to play squash. But, yes, golf is a game where you try to go into a completely different environment. Beautiful landscapes.
It just gets your mind off your work. I’m a lousy golf player, so you try your best to try to put this little ball into the hole and that’s excellent therapy.
On his childhood:
I grew up in a conservative household. That was the life of the time in Egypt, a conservative, middle-class household. [I had] good caring parents, with lots of roots but a lot of affection and love. But it was basically a conservative upbringing; we focused on values, focused on education. I was exposed, early on to a lot of things which I still enjoy, like classical music. My father used to love classical music.
Did your mother wear a headscarf?
No, only lately, she started to wear them. When I was growing up, there was not a single woman in Egypt that was wearing a scarf. That was not the thing. This is all the last ten years, I would say.
So she has started to wear one now?
Five, ten year. I think it’s more of a ... I don’t know whether it’s peer pressure. It’s tradition now. This is one of the issues I discuss with her every single day, that it doesn’t make sense for you to wear it. But, in a joking way. She’s 82, so I’m not going to change the way she thinks now. But this is one of the contentious issues I have with her, that I tease her about it.
To what extent does your religion help shape your world view?
Not much, as much as any religion. To me religion is the core values [with] which I felt as comfortable Christians, with Buddhists, with Jews. I don’t see much difference. [...] Egypt at that time was multi-cultural. I remember I used to play squash. I bought the equipment from a shop that was run by Australians. My father used to go rowing and his trainer was an Italian. My mother used to go to a tailor, "Madame Euphegine", she was French. My parents used to buy me toys from a shop, Mr. Zak, who was Jewish. Egypt was in a way was very much, religion was not something people talked about. [...] But, religion to me, at that time, and continues to be, it’s a good guiding set of principles which I share with everybody else. My daughter’s husband is British, my first girlfriend was Jewish. I never really felt that religion is a major factor I have to take into account.
On becoming a lawyer:
I always wanted to be a lawyer. I don’t know why. [...] I guess law was always interesting to me because you deal with constants. I like to deal with constants, abstracts, constants and reason and ration, rational approaches to things. I don’t know, I never really thought why I wanted to study law. But if you ask me, whether I would do it again, absolutely. I love law, more in the sense of having a structured approach to dealing with irrational approach. You learn how to think in a rational way, in a logical manner. That helps you in anything you do in life.
On his role as IAEA Director General:
I would probably say: I’m not a technician fixing cameras. People would like to downsize me, put me in the job of a technician fixing cameras but I don’t see my role like that.
On his New York experience:
New York was an eye-opener for me. All of a sudden I came from a sheltered life, of living with my parents, being taken care of, to a person who has to be completely self dependent, have his own apartment, have to pay his bills and earn his living. I got into this melting pot where every other person was different, speaking a different language, from different ethnicities. It was for me, great. Just the excitement of just meeting people from every place and exposed to every thing new. From baseball to the opera.
I was single at that time. You can just afford spending all your time on going out. Then of course, I took time off, three years, and then I went to NYU, to do my doctorate.
I took leave [from the Egyptian Foreign Service] completely and then I went to live in Greenwich Village and that was the best three years of my life, I think.
But the best part of New York in my view, the most humane part of New York, there are the artists, the intellectuals, the writer and students. You go to the Irish bar around the corner, talk with people. It was absolutely lovely. New York to me was a microcosm of what I do now. You deal with different people from different walks of life, and you learn how you integrate.
On the importance of his wife on his life:
She’s my closest friend. The fact that we’ve been together for 32 years, you don’t have to put on any airs. You are exactly naked with each other. With that of course, I have complete trust so I can run ideas by her whether they are good ideas, bad ideas [or] just thinking around with her all the time... Sometimes, the job is frustrating of course, and sometimes ... you’re not sure which direction you want to go. She always has a good common sense - sometimes gives me that counseling, not to rush into things sometimes, saying, ‘that might not sit well with some people’. We usually talk. She follows every single article on the web.
The first thing she does after she has her cup of coffee is to check the web. She will come to me and say "Good morning, there are two new articles about this and that". So she is interested in the work. She looks at the issues and we work together on speeches, it’s fun. Laban [Coblentz, Dr. ElBaradei’s speechwriter] does 90% of the work. She sends him notes sometimes. We work together on that, we think it’s fun. It’s a creative thing, to try to A. to develop an idea and B. try to articulate. That’s something I like and she likes, we do a lot of that together.
On running for a third term:
I thought two terms was more than adequate. I’ve done my duty as a public servant and it was time to move on. Less stress and something new in my life. It was 99% decided that I should not stand up for a third term. My daughter was very much pushing me not to go and my wife also, although she said, "it’s up to you". But the whole family was not really keen that I should run again, including myself.
You could have left with the legacy of Iraq.
That is correct. Iraq was behind us. It was a great achievement for the Agency and myself that we at least proved ourselves in such momentous issue. To be on the right side. I could have left and basked in the good will of public opinion and moved to the lecture circuit. I had three or four offers at that time from the Fletcher School [at Tufts University], the Kennedy School [at Harvard University], to go and do whatever Fellow teaching, write books. Everything was set to go. Then of course, I got the message from our friend [then U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations] Mr. [John R.] Bolton, that the US is not ready to support me and it took me one day to put my name on the back on the ballot. Really ... the second day. It was a sense of revulsion, that basically, this decision should be made by me and not by anybody else and even if you do not want to support me, that’s your choice, but you can not tell me in advance. Don’t try.
I did not want to concede that I am not going to run because somebody doesn’t like my policy. Because, I know, the rest of the world likes my policy ... I had unanimous support by the Board, not a certain person even wanted to run against me. Not because of me, just because of what I represented, an international institution that’s tried to be objective, impartial, doing the right thing and this was in the years of Iraq, when people thought, these guys were really trying to do something right.
I have a strong belief in what my job is about. I’d like to make my own decisions and not be told what I have to do particularly when it conflicts with my beliefs. I see my role as a public servant. I feel that I have a duty and a responsibility to the international community to tell them how I see things, from where I’m sitting. We deal here with issues that have to do with war and peace. Iraq is a vivid example. I will continue to speak on issues, not because I’m a freelancer, but because I know that these issues are very relevant to the success of my organization and myself doing our jobs. When I talk about the need for Weapons States to disarm, they don’t like that. But this is very much linked to our success to curb non-proliferation. ... I talk about the Middle East needing soft power and not pouring 50 billion dollars of arms, because I know that the mess in the Middle East is not going to be helped by additional weapons. However, being independent, I am absolutely conscious of what mandate is. If you read my reports to the Board, they are very much, strict with the letters of my mandate. When I speak outside, I speak as a public official, as a public figure, as a concerned citizen ... But, I owe it, I feel it is my duty to speak but I know that they can overrule me. This is an advice. I don’t make any decisions that are in conflict with my mandate but I give my advice all the time to governments on what I see. When they like it, then I’m absolutely within the strictures of my mandate, when I, for example talked about the India deal agreement, I was hailed as a custodian of the NPT by the Bush administration. This was Condi Rice, who said a couple of time, ‘Mohamed ElBaradei is the custodian of the NPT’ [Non-Proliferation Treaty], publicly in the newspaper. But, when I say something that some governments don’t like, then I’m out of the box. I don’t have a box. My box within the Agency, I will challenge anyone to say that I’m not doing exactly what my responsibilities here are. But I’m not going to me muzzled. That maybe is what explains independence. When I have strong beliefs – and I know that these strong beliefs have a strong impact on the rest of the world – I go for it. But it doesn’t mean that I don’t compromise. That’s the difference with being stubborn. I do listen to everybody before making a decision and in many cases, I have to make compromises.
On his role:
Somebody, last week, at a dinner party, said something which I liked: he said on this issue there is a very strong national interest but my role and the Agency’s role is to make sure that the church will continue to be in the center of the village. I thought that was a very good way of describing what we do. We need to make sure that the church continues to be at the center of the village, meaning, apply the rules. Be fair, be objective, be decent, make sure that things do not go in one direction or the other. I have to remind people of things they don’t want to hear. But I’m not picking battles. Because my job is to add a ‘secular pope’, if you like, as described the Secretary General, and I think it applies to me. We need to remind people of the code of values they have subscribed to. And I also have to make sure, frankly, that we do not end up killing each other. If they don’t like sometimes what I say, and they think I am picking a battle, I’m not. If they don’t take these decisions, I would be very happy, enjoying, going home and playing golf.
His reaction to being called ‘a rogue regulator’ in a September 5Washington Post editorial
I’m not impervious to it, but it makes me understand that I need to do more explaining. But I also understand that I’m not going to convince everybody, because there are people who hail from a different ideological perspective... If you took John Bolton and myself, we hail from completely different ideological perspectives. He is pure ideology. I act with my feet on the ground. I take a pragmatic approach. I see a lot of merit in dialogue and reconciling differences. He sees a lot of merit in confrontation and use of force. These are different.
If he had to choose between a nuclear Iran and going to war:
I don’t think I have to make that choice now. Today, nobody is saying Iran is a clear and present danger. Nobody is saying that Iran today has what it takes to develop nuclear weapons. If the people are saying that we do not trust this regime, and therefore they should not have the technology that can be used for nuclear weapons. It’s all about distrust of Iran’s future intentions. I had have no qualms that some people have distrust because of Iran’s past behavior with regards to the nuclear file, but to build confidence, you are not going to build confidence through sanctions alone. You need to sit together and talk about it and try to work mechanisms to build confidence. My job is to make sure that Iran will not develop a nuclear weapon. It would be a total, miserable failure for the Agency and for me personally, if Iran were to develop a nuclear weapon, because my job is to make sure that they don’t – Iran and everybody else who is committed to not developing nuclear weapons. There is a lot of misunderstanding. Our job today is to make sure that Iran, today, past and present, has no military program, no nuclear material outside of safeguards. The primary concern now about Iran is its future contention and therefore it should not have the technology, because they might have a break-out scenario. This goes much beyond our mandate: this is a question of risk assessment. This is a question of reading regime behavior. There is no contradiction
On whether Iran once had the intention of developing a nuclear weapon:
Many countries in the past had ambitions. I can’t really judge ambitions. I have to deal with the facts. Has the ambition translated into an active program? I can’t read intention. I keep people frustrated when I say that. I can’t read intensions. I can read facts. I can read equipment. I can read technology. If countries [have] ambitions, that brings me to the larger question, which again, sometimes people don’t like to talk about. I have to understand, if we suspect people have ambitions, why they have these ambitions. Why Finland – no one talks about Finland having the ambition and why many people suspect many countries in the Middle East to have the ambition. The key is a sense of insecurity. It could be misplaced. It could a wrong perception. We need to address this sense of insecurity and that’s much more complicated. That goes back again to the soft powers, to the human rights abuses, to the civil wars. We need to address the root causes of insecurity, otherwise we will continue to be fire-fighters, putting out a fire here and another one will start the next year. That’s why I continue to talk about [it], for God’s sake, try to look at the root causes. A lot of what we see right now, is where are most of our concerns? In the Middle East? It’s the Korean peninsula and South Asia. These are three regions where you have conflict which has been going on for fifty to a hundred years. You need to address this. Where you have many oppressive governments, when you have lots of feeling of injustice, people in many parts of these regions have it both ways. Have it had the hand of the governments, being oppressed and having at the hand of the outside world, the feeling of being neglected both in their living conditions, in terms of freedom, in terms of conflicts. You need to address these things. These are difficult issues, long-term. It requires sustained policy. I will continue to deal with the symptoms but in my other capacity as a concerned citizen, I will have to continue to say, "Don’t forget the causes." Because for me to be able to see less and less symptoms, we need to understand these things.
On Iran’s lack of transparency over the years:
That is why we’ve kept Iran in the box for the last five years. Because things do not add up. That’s why we said, you – Iran – will never get a clean bill of health from us, until you clarify this. Because we have suspicions. I said last week, in [German news magazine] Der Spiegel, that Iran forfeited it’s right, temporarily, for enrichment, because they lost the confidence of the Agency and they need to earn it again. So it is not that we are... blue-eyed or naive, that we don’t see that. But we can not jump from that, by saying, because things have not been clarified to us, this must be a weapons program. If you look at the rhetoric of the Bush administration in the last couple of years, three years ago, they were all talking about a nuclear weapons program. If you look recently, Bush or any others, last week, they want to have the technology that can be used to develop a nuclear weapon capability. Then there was another statement saying, we have the suspicion that they have the ambition to have nuclear capability. This is a different language. When we said two or three years ago, ‘we don’t have concrete evidence that this is a weapons program, although we have a lot of questions,’ we were attacked in a very vicious way. We can’t jump the gun because, as we saw in Iraq, I can’t jump the gun. In Iraq, I didn’t say ‘Iraq is clean, absolutely’ but I did say, ‘I have no evidence’ and ‘give me more time’. Because these words, ‘this is a weapons program’, could have had tremendous implications for world security. Unless I am absolutely clear about it. However, if I see things, a clear threat, a clear and present danger developing, I would have to raise the alarm right away. It’s a very difficult balance to maintain. Like governments, we need to use carrots, we need to use sticks.
What would you tell the Bush Administration?
I would tell them that you need to engage Iran. You can obviously express your concern ... about the fact that the program is still not transparent. You need to continue to exert pressure for Iran to come clean. But you need also to engage them. Dialogue is not a reward: dialogue is absolutely indispensable to ... And that is what I have been saying all the time: engage!
Is there anything that can be done substantively until there is a new Administration?
I hope we don’t have to wait for that. I still hope that we will be able to create the conditions for the Bush Administration to initiate discussion, initiate dialogue with Iran. I think that is key. We can’t afford to wait for another year and a half. I don’t know what’s going to happen in another year and a half – I see a brewing confrontation. Today, I still renew this call for a time-out. Let us cool it. Iran takes time out from enrichment; the Security Council takes time out from sanctions. Let us try negotiation for a change. I still would continue to call on everybody including the Bush Administration in particular, to try to engage Iran. They are engaging Iran on the Iraq issue but they are not engaging Iran on the nuclear issue. We need a comprehensive dialogue between the two.
On the time-out model:
They take a time off and either completely suspend enrichment and the Security Council suspends sanctions –this is the best model – or they can ‘freeze for freeze’: no more increase in the enrichment and no more increase in the sanctions. The first one is the best. However, any formula that can get the parties to talk is for me a win-win.
On Iranian decision making:
The more you engage, the more you empower the moderates. That’s what it is. The more you isolate the moderates, you put the hardliner in the driver’s seat. You’re shooting yourself in the foot if you isolate or disempower the moderates. Iran, like any other country, has a lot of different factions and different views. You need to engage.
On whether Iran could continue to do enrichment with a time-out or a freeze:
This is for the parties to negotiate. I don’t want to get into that. Freeze is like time-out, is like suspension: you freeze in tract – it doesn’t mean you do anything, you freeze all the activities. And the Security Council freeze, it can mean freeze all the sanctions or freeze the current sanctions. I want the parties to do it. I didn’t want to use this word suspension, because this has already been a word which will not be acceptable.
You have referred to those who want to use force against Iran because of its nuclear program as crazies. Who are the ‘crazies’ in the nuclear dossier:
Anybody who is saying, ‘let’s go and bomb Iran now’, because I don’t see any ground. You don’t use force at this stage, at all. I leave it to you to guess.
On taking energy from his adversaries:
I take energy from my adversaries. I take energy when I see people, the polling of support, as I said, if you look at all the comment: that gives me energy. There is a lot of silent majority which is supporting what I am doing, which is basic common sense. I see myself with common sense and not fighting.
On his personal style
I’m not a good small talker. I’m not into small talk, frankly. I think people at the office probably know that. However, sometimes, if I’m with very close friends, I have a very nasty and dry sense of humor but that has to be with my kids or very close friends. I’m a private person, in a way, I guess, essentially. I used to be a very shy person and grew up a very shy person and maybe traces of that are still there.
On whether he is guilty of the ‘Nobel syndrome’:
I don’t know if my wife told you, and this is really true, 95% I am not aware of the fact that I am a Nobel Laureate. It’s very funny - I guess because I am complete engrossed with my work right now. Once in a while I say, I have to pinch myself, and say, "You are a Nobel Laureate", but I don’t. Maybe when I retire, I’ll be more aware of that, but right now, I have the Iranian file, the Korean file, I have people whom I have to hire or fire. I make sure that the media is not misquoting me. If you like, in fact, Nobel didn’t go to my head in anyway because, if fact in the area of Nobel Peace Prize, it makes you more humble. You know how much more you still have to do and how much far away peace...
On being a New Yorker:
That I feel like home in New York that’s basically. New York is home for me: I spent 15 years in New York. New York is still home. I have lots of friends, memories. I love New York not because what it represents, an effort to look at the big picture, integrate and learn how all of us need to work together, succeed together. It’s a merit system. It doesn’t matter where you’re coming from. And you are rewarded on your merit and tolerate each other. That’s to me, still an elusive goal we haven’t reached. You see sometimes the comments on the blogs saying, "His name is Mohamed and that says it all". That makes you feel that there is still a lot of work to do.
Meaning that I’m inherently biased, because of my background, my identity, religious origin... It just shows how much we still have stereotyping. How much we cannot come to understand that we can rise above all these petty allegiances and identify, simply with each other as human beings.
On his job:
This is not an easy job ... I meet a lot of people on the street who say, "We admire that you are doing the job, nobody else wanted to do it". This is true. You meet someone on the street, as I do a lot, and someone will tell me, "You are doing God’s work" and that will keep me going for quite a while and I get a lot of that. I meet them at airports, walking in the streets of different countries, basically saying, ‘thank you for doing what you are doing and doing God’s work’, stuff like that. It makes you feel good.
On his unique role:
We are sitting to make verdicts, you are in compliance, you are not in compliance. That is very unique. Governments are very resentful of this. How come they hired guy and pay him his salary and yet he comes and tells them what they need to do or not, or, even worse, whether they are behaving or misbehaving. There is always this resentment about the so-called ‘international civil servant’. And you see it even in different places, how could this international civil servant, a bureaucrat, tell us what we need to do in general, as a superpower or even as an inspected country. You go through a lot of that: they test you, they try to intimidate you, they try to befriend you and then at the end of the day, they understand that you are going to stick to your grounds. You are not interested in their hospitality or you are not intimidated by their threats or intimidation. Then they start to behave but you have to go through this. We went through this in Iraq, went through this in Korea, in Iran – you go through the same fight. People trying to test you first, trying to see whether they can take you to their side, whether they can intimidate you.
On the prospect that the Iran plan will work:
But even themselves (Iran), they are fractured. We are not even sure they will go along with this agreement. We will have to see in two or three months, whether they will act in good faith. I’m not giving any assurance of this – if they do, obviously, things will work well; if they don’t, it will backfire. We are neutral on that issue. I’m not ready to give any assurance that they will implement.
All we are doing is saying ‘give them a chance.’ They say we are taking ‘yes’ for an answer. But if they don’t do it, I told them very openly that it will backfire, absolutely, in a very bad way.
On the banning of inspectors.
We have a lot of very experienced people there. That’s not one of our concerns. It’s an irritation but it’s not a big concern that we have. They do these things – a lot of it is for domestic purposes, to show that they retaliated against the Security Council and all. Sometimes you need to look at the big picture. These are lots of things, irritations, but it is not our focus. Our focus is to come to grips with what is happening. That’s the important thing.