U.N. Nuclear Watchdog Says Iran Threat 'Hyped'
International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei told the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, published by a group of prominent scientists, that there's still cause for concern -- just not panic.
"We have not seen concrete evidence that Tehran has an ongoing nuclear weapons program," the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize laureate told the Bulletin for its September/October issue.
"But somehow, many people are talking about how Iran's nuclear program is the greatest threat to the world," added ElBaradei, whose Vienna-based agency long has played a key role itself in raising international concern about Iran's intentions.
"In many ways, I think the threat has been hyped. Yes, there's concern about Iran's future intentions and Iran needs to be more transparent with the IAEA and the international community ... But the idea that we'll wake up tomorrow and Iran will have a nuclear weapon is an idea that isn't supported by the facts as we have seen them so far."
Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful and geared solely toward generating electricity. The U.S. and key allies contend it is covertly trying to build a nuclear weapon.
ElBaradei steps down on Nov. 30 after 12 years as head of the IAEA. Western diplomats have criticized him for not taking a harder line on Iran, although as recently as June, he suggested Tehran wants to gain nuclear weapons capability.
The IAEA, which circulated the interview late Tuesday, said it had seen a draft of ElBaradei's remarks.
ElBaradei's interview with the Chicago-based Bulletin -- best known for its symbolic Doomsday Clock, which tracks the threat of a global cataclysm -- was released ahead of a meeting next week of the IAEA's 35-nation board to review the threat posed by Iran, North Korea, Syria and others.
In his latest report, which was shown to reporters last week, ElBaradei said Iran is stonewalling the IAEA on "possible military dimensions" to its nuclear program.
ElBaradei acknowledged that Iran has been producing nuclear fuel at a slower rate and has allowed U.N. inspectors broader access to its main nuclear complex in the southern city of Natanz and to a reactor in Arak. But he gave a blunt assessment: "Iran has not suspended its enrichment-related activities."
U.S. President Barack Obama has given Iran something of an ultimatum: Stop enriching uranium -- which, if done at a high level, can produce fissile material for the core of a nuclear weapon -- or face harsher penalties.
In exchange, Tehran could get trade benefits from six countries -- the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia -- that were engaging in closed-door talks being held Wednesday at an undisclosed location near Frankfurt.
"We still have outstanding questions that are relevant to the nature of Tehran's program, and we still need to verify that there aren't undeclared activities taking place inside of the country," ElBaradei told the Bulletin.
He said a dialogue sought by Obama to build trust and normalize relations with Iran is "the only way forward." He said talks also were key in dealing with North Korea, which recently conducted two nuclear test blasts.
In the interview, ElBaradei also took a swipe at the United States over its 2003 invasion of Iraq, justified by Washington at the time because Saddam Hussein allegedly had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction.
Just before the invasion, ElBaradei had told the Security Council that his experts found no evidence of such weaponry -- and none has surfaced since.
"The United States spent $3 trillion to come to the same conclusion we came to before the war for something like $5 million," he said.
Although ElBaradei's advisers insist he's not anti-American, the IAEA chief has had a complicated relationship with the U.S. during his tenure.
In 2005, Washington tried unsuccessfully to block his appointment to a new term because his statements were perceived as critical of U.S. policy in Iran and Iraq.
But Obama has praised ElBaradei for his proposal to set up a secure international nuclear fuel bank to help ensure uranium doesn't fall into the hands of rogue nations or terrorists.