My Interview with Dr. Hans Blix on Iraq, Iran and the U.S. Elections

05/20/2008 02:00 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Last week I interviewed Dr. Hans Blix, former head of the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission in Iraq. Now head of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission based in Sweden, Dr. Blix discusses Iraq, Iran and diplomatic incentives, the US elections, the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission and world security.

Let's say you would have had more time in Iraq back in 2003. What would have been the alternative to the allied invasion in Iraq?

I think if we had a couple of months more time for inspections it would have been much less likelier that there would have been an invasion, because the main justification offered to the public for the invasion was the conviction that there were still weapons of mass destruction.

And with that assertion from the US, the UK and others their administrations naturally had to tell us where these weapons of mass destruction were. So we were given perhaps a hundred tips about different sites, but we only had time to go to about three dozens of them and there were no weapons of mass destruction. If we have had more time we would have gone to all the sites suspected by intelligence and if the results would have been continuously negative they would have had proof that the sources they had were poor, in many cases the sources were defectors more interested in invasion than inspection.

Saddam would have remained in power, he would have remained a terror for his own people, but I think that it's more likely that he would have turned out to be like a Gaddafi or a Castro rather than a danger to the environment.

Is it sensible to pull the US troops out of Iraq now?

I don't think anyone suggests one should pull out immediately, but I think that a phased withdrawal would be desirable, because only such a message will make the Iranians and the Iranian leadership and other groups involved in the current disturbances in Iraq, some say Shiads or Kurds are involved as well, realize that they own the problem. As long as you have a 150,000 troops in the country, various groups can try and persuade them to support their views. The moment they realize that they will be alone there is a better chance that they will pull themselves together. In my opinion the withdrawal should start within the next few years.

The political scientist Samuel P. Huntington argued in his book Clash of Civilizations that the widespread Western belief in the universality of the West's values and political system is naïve and that continual insistence on democratization and such "universal" norms will only further antagonize other civilizations.

Do you agree with this theory and what would be the solution to the clash of cultures?

The original article was interesting, but I do not believe in the theory of, at least not, an armed clash of civilizations. First of all in military terms it doesn't make any sense, because the Western powers are stronger armed. So there is no way that Islamic countries could challenge the West, particularly my impression is that the majority of the Muslims even in Pakistan, but certainly in Indonesia are moderate that we hear a lot more about the extremists, but the government in Pakistan is formed by a majority of moderate Muslims.

So the more we raise our voice in the West stressing the Islamic elements the more we will antagonize them and perhaps may risk to increase their orthodox or their fundamentalist view in the Islamic world. The more humiliation, the higher the risk of igniting groups and that could be troublesome, indeed.

How much of a threat is Iran right now?

Right now it doesn't constitute a threat. They had an ability to enrich uranium and they have not yet reached the industrialized scale of enrichment. If things come closer to a highly enriched uranium production for weapons, and that not only for fuel purposes, me and the commission that I'm heading believe that it is highly desirable to persuade Iran to stay away from enrichment and stay away from the plans they have or the program that they have, because it has already increased the tension very much and it's very hard to see that there is any economic interest in having enrichment capability to feed only two nuclear reactors and even if they expand their reactor park somewhat it can not be economically interesting.

South Korea has twenty nuclear power reactors and they do not enrich. They buy enriched fuel in the world market. My own country Sweden has ten nuclear reactors and we also buy fuel in the world market. So it can't be an economical interest for Iran to do so.

However Iran denies currently that they want to go for nuclear weapons and for some political fractions inside Iran that may well be true, they might be sincere about it. The only problem is that they could change their mind. I think the negotiations that are pursued are of very great importance, both in the case of Iran and in the case of North Korea. If they were to pursue to move towards nuclear weapons they would have the risk of some domino effect especially in the case of North Korea. So the negotiations are important. I am encouraged by the latest steps of the 'P-5+1' meetings that they now get ready to talk directly with Iran. Until recently they said that Iran must first suspend its program and only after that they can talk about it. I think that the Iranians would need to sit down and see what can be offered and what will be offered. There are some features for instance offered by the six powers to North Korea which are not to my knowledge being offered to Iran, for example establishing diplomatic relations with the US and Japan if they go along with the nuclear deal. The diplomatic agenda regarding Iran has certainly not been exhausted yet.

Hillary Clinton recently threatened to "totally obliterate" Iran, if it were to launch a nuclear attack against Israel, Barack Obama criticizes that statement as "the cowboy diplomacy that we've seen out of George Bush".

Meanwhile Obama says in October last year during an interview with the New York Times that he would engage Iran in "aggressive personal diplomacy" without necessary regime change, but noticeable "changes in behaviour" on the part of Iran.

And last but not least the Republican presidential candidate John McCain pushes the statement in March that the terrorist group Al-Qaeda was getting assistance from Iran.

What outcome do you predict for the next US-elections? What impact will it have on multilateral politics/the Middle East? Will the United States turn away from the doctrine of preemptive self-defense?

These are substantial questions. We have seen that in the case of Korea the US has moved away from the threat of using force. It has been an effort that the world is supporting, because it is obviously very dangerous to interfere on a military level with North Korea. Regarding Iran there are still all options on the table. We heard that it is "unacceptable" for Iran to have nuclear weapons. Now that's one thing to have nuclear weapons, they are not saying that it is unacceptable to reach enrichment capability, but I think there is a justified concern to reach enrichment capability.

I believe both democratic candidates Hillary and Obama, are in favor of direct talks with Iran. Though I remember that Hillary at one point criticized Obama for possibly engaging himself in talks. That is an important technicality that governments go very early into various talks. Obama is suggesting not to insist on regime change. That is wise, in fact that is what the US is doing now in the case of North Korea. There is no threat of regime change and the rest of the world knows that the US think that the regime they have in North Korea is an inhumane one. In Iran we don't have the same misery than in Korea. However many aspects of that regime are reprehensible to the rest of the world. Iran is not a democracy and women are oppressed. There are a lot of features that are repugnant to the West. This is one thing and another thing is whether the Western world should take it upon themselves to military interchange. The Western world doesn't do that in Zimbabwe, it doesn't do that in Birma either places where the world community would like to see change, but if we go that route, if we intervene with regimes violently that don't respect human rights, we won't get very far and the lesson or the result in the case of Iraq is not very encouraging either. So I think restrain and disregard is desirable on that matter.

Mike McConnell, director of national intelligence in the US stated in February in front of the senate that Al Qaeda is gaining in strength from its refuge in Pakistan and is steadily improving its ability to recruit, train and position operatives capable of carrying out attacks inside the United States. Do you agree? How influential is Al-Qaeda these days? What is the social structure?

I don't really have any intelligence on how much Al-Qaeda is increasing and I'm not buying in a straight forward manner what intelligence agencies say on that matter. We know that Al-Qaeda wasn't present in Iraq before the invasion despite the fact that this was alleged by the administration. We know that Al-Qaeda has come there since then and we know that they were in Afghanistan and that they now presumably exist in the areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Again: The more people in this region are feeling humiliated by the West the more fertile the ground is for recruitment for Al-Qaeda so the rest of the world is in need to help them in nation building. In Afghanistan the emphasis has been too much on the military intervention and too little on the nation building. As a result the acceptance of the Western troops in Afghanistan has been shrinking in the past years and that has something to do with the emphasis on the military rather than on the humanitarian aspects.

Who finances the "Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission"?

The Swedish Government and we also have some support from a foundation in Canada.

What are the goals/intentions of the organization?

We were given the task to come up with proposals as to how one can tackle the question of weapons of mass destruction not limited to proliferation, states or terrorists. We did come up with this report that contains sixty regulations. Half of them are dealing with nuclear- and the other half are dealing with biological, chemical weapons and missiles. I find that the regulations we have are in large parts similar to the directions coming from other groups. The so called "Gang of Four" represented by George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn and Bill Perry who is also a member of our commission.

On top of the list you will find in most cases a recommendation for the "Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty", which was alleged by the US-Senate in 1996/97 and also recommendations about a conclusive treaty that will stop the production of enriched uranium and plutonium for weapons purposes under international verification. Also the stop of keeping nuclear weapons on emergency alert and withdrawal nuclear weapons from NATO in Western Europe and at the same time emerging the Russians to withdraw nuclear weapons further into Russian territory.

Besides support for what was the main argument of the US "Gang of Four" to open talks with Russia and other countries that have large numbers of nuclear weapons to begin discussions about nuclear disarmament.

You recently published a book, called Why Nuclear Disarmament Matters. Do you have the feeling that people need to be reminded about the urgency of the topic?

Yes. I think that we all drew a sigh of relief when the cold war ended around 1990 and we felt that now it's over and I also share that feeling that the situation was immeasurably more dangerous during the cold war. Some people think it has become more dangerous now, but I think it was more dangerous when you had two blocks strongly armed with lots of nuclear weapons and they were involved in a political wrestling match with each other.

However the sigh of relief was drawn, the world community sort of lost sight of the weapons situation and they turn to another item which is just as justified to deal with and that's the environmental situation and global warming. Al Gore woke up the world with the reality of one inconvenient truth, but I think that the second inconvenient truth exists, namely the remaining nuclear weapons of mass destruction. There is something like 37,000 of them still around. And with the increasing tension in the world it is time to discover that we need to move swiftly back to the disarmament table.

The last disarmament congress took place ten years ago and the latest conference on non-proliferation in 2005 ended in bitterness, because no nuclear weapon state said that "Yes, we want to uphold this treaty". So I think that the nuclear states have failed to life up to their promises about nuclear disarmament. In the view of the commission we need to have action on both sides of the agenda: the proof to strengthen the NPT and the disarmament of the nuclear weapons states. But there are also some successes to register: At the end of the Soviet Union, Belo-Russia und the Ukraine and Kazakhstan did not retain their nuclear weapons, but under the supervision of the US and Russia these weapons were transferred to Russia.

South Africa used to have nuclear weapons and dismantled under international verification. And true, there are some countries people are concerned about, namely Libya and Iran who were both trying to get hold of nuclear weapons and had to move backwards. There are negotiations with North Korea and Iran. So I do not share the alarmist attitude that the treaty is breaking down, but there is also a further strain in relations between the US and Western countries and Russia and China, regarding the missile defense in the Czech Republic.

How can the International community deal with a clandestine international network of nuclear weapons technology proliferation, namely people like Dr. Abduhl Quadaer Khan and Dr. Mohammed Farooq?

The knowledge about how to enrich uranium or the processes is no longer a secret. We need to be alert to the activities of states and integrative foreign policy is the most important element to create stability on the matter at hand, because if we examine why states have gone for nuclear weapons it is because of perceived security interests. And in addition to that also somewhat of a personal status and recognition and that tells us, if you want to avoid proliferation than we must work on the states psychology: countries have to get the feeling that they don't need the weapons.

Export controls are also necessary and finally we need to strengthen the control of traveling nuclear material within the countries. I don't think one can have a hundred percent certainty that the nuclear material transfer totally stops and we could have it under control, but we can get much further than we are now. North Korea seemed to have knowledge import from Mr. Kaan. I think that there is no guarantee that there will not be another Mr. Kaan, but there is an alert in the export of knowledge and nuclear material.

What is the moral justification for some countries to be able to own a vast collection of WMD while others can't?

There is none. The answer is to find in the 1970 Non-proliferation treaty. Those states that were non nuclear committed themselves to remain non nuclear and nuclear states committed themselves to negotiating leading into nuclear disarmament. The treaty was aiming at a nuclear weapon free world. And it attracted all the non nuclear weapon states to adhere. So it was a very successful treaty, but the nuclear weapon states have not taken their duty to disarm seriously. There is not only an obligation to negotiate, there is an obligation to negotiate towards a result and I think unless the nuclear weapon states also show that they clearly want to walk away and find the exit to the nuclear era there is a risk at long term. The treaty may be weakened and than other states say, well, if they insist that this is good for their security we also produce weapons that are good for our security.

Do you think that there is a new sense of caution on the part of the US since US intelligence determined that Tehran abandoned its nuclear weapon program in 2003?

My impression from the Iranian situation is that they are divided within Iran on where they would want to go. What we know is that the roots of that program leading to enrichment was founded in the 1980s. And what that suggests to me is that Iran suspected and rightly suspected that Iraq was moving towards nuclear weapons. Iraq and Iran were in a horrible war in the 1980s so it was illogical for them to say Iraq is moving into that direction and we don't have the possibility of retaliation. However the Iraqis attained the capability of enriching already in the early 90s. The Gulf War stopped that development and the Iranians must then have said, well, Iraq is not dangerous, but Iran did not come to enrichment until around 2003 and beyond that after 2003.

So they must have taken a lot more time and their program has not been on a straight line. If they have taken a decision in 2003 to abandon their program I don't know, I have not seen the evidence of that. But certainly after 2003 they must have said that Iraq is in shambles and that it will be a very long time before they could get back to anything nuclear and a nuclear weapons program.

I do not see that Iran clearly has a security need for nuclear weapons. Pakistan has because of India, India supposedly because of China and Israel because of the general situation in the Middle East. I can't see that there is any threat for Iran except Iraq. And that threat is gone. Pakistan is not anymore threatening to Iran than Turkey or Afghanistan and they feel the presence of the US aircraft carriers. But that would be part of negotiation. If they can be shown that there is no threat from either Iraq or Israel, than maybe the chance of negotiating to avoid the further continuation of the enrichment program is hopeful.

What would qualify as truly convincing evidence that Iran is working on a military nuclear program again?

I have not seen any convincing evidence. But I understand very well the suspicions. I don't think it really matters, whether you have convincing evidence or not, because the near movement towards an industrial enrichment capability is what causes tension. And even if it ought to be conclusively shown that they do not have that ambition now than the ambition could change in two years time. So I don't think that discussion is relevant to what we should be aiming for. However, having said that, I can see elements, which make the outside world suspicious. One is that I don't see the economic justification for the enrichment program and as I said they have only two reactors and building an enrichment program for two reactors is not economically efficient. Secondly they do not have much uranium in the ground as far as we know. The assessment of the quantity of the uranium points to very limited amounts. And hence they will be dependent on foreign supply in the long run anyway. Thirdly the building for the heavy water research reactor is also a project, which makes the outside world suspicious, because that is an excellent plutonium producer. That is true in the case of Syria.

After the Europeans goal of trying to make it easier to invest in Iran, helping Iran to develop peaceful nuclear power and join the World Trade Organization - what other diplomatic incentives are there available to offer to Iran?

All these incentives, which are also supported by the US, are very positive features, because it captures an argument that we often hear from Iran, namely that the outside or the industrialized world wants to stop them to use the modern nuclear technology. The US and the Western world is not out to stop Iran from using modern nuclear technology, but on the contrary is willing to support and help Iran to develop nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, namely to produce electricity. So it's encountering all that argument.

The Western world complemented by Russia and China are out to persuade Iran from enrichment of uranium, which is not necessary for their nuclear power program and which raises concern. What incentives could there be? There are a number that have been mentioned as parts of the deal and one certainly is to facilitate investment in Iran. At the present time you unfortunately see the opposite happening. You see the US preventing credits to go into Iran. You have Security Council resolutions, which on the other hand also stopped transfers into the facility of their nuclear weapon program. There is one very important 'carrot' to offer to Iran: That is allowing Iran to become part of the World trade organization.

I am just wondering why they have not been offering the same two carrots like they offered to North Korea, namely diplomatic relations, which means recognition that they will be part of the international community meaning diplomatic relations particularly with the US since Europe has diplomatic relations with Iran. These are carrots the commission I am heading also came forward with.

And another idea that I have not seen used at all in recent negotiations is trying to create a zone free of reprocessing activities. We know that for a very long time there have been activities to try to create a zone free of weapons of mass destruction and all the countries in the Middle East including Israel voted for that idea. However it is also clear that as long as there is not a broader peace process in the Middle East taking place, it is highly unlikely that Israel would go along with giving away it's nuclear weapons. If there is going to be a broader interest in developing nuclear power in the Middle East and as a result the creation of enrichment not only in Iran, but in other countries as well, the tension would raise enormously. Now Iran and Israel are the only ones to have such facilities for now. Iran is developing enrichment and Israel for a long time had facilities for the separation of plutonium. Today Israel does have something like 200 bombs. It would require Israel that they would stop any further separation of plutonium, which would not affect their weapons capability, but it would affect any further enrichment of plutonium.

However I haven't seen that anyone has taken up this idea. Some other writers talked about Israel possibly going along with a nuclear weapon free zone just in order to make sure that Iran would stop their development. That is a more radical idea than the one we have. And there are less radical ideas than ours and one of them is that one should accept enrichment in Iran, but one should have an international ownership in it for example some bigger states like Germany and France would go in as co-owners and thereby make the whole operation much more transparent, which would have some advantages, nevertheless it is also clear that as soon as you have an enrichment capability than the risk that they could use it for whatever purposes is higher.

The German news magazine Der Spiegel started a new series on democracy and stated that democracy as a form of government has a new competitor: the authoritarian political system, economically successful, but lacking an understanding for human rights (China, Russia) and the concept of democracy as such.

1. Would you agree?
2. What consequence does that theory have regarding the non-proliferation of WMD? Wouldn't you predict a new arms race between economically emerging countries?

That sounds alarmist to me. It doesn't seem to me that the autocratic states have expanded very much. China is certainly autocratic, but less so than before. Russia is not as free wheeling as it was in the 90s, but I don't see that they have taken a lead to going into a more militant direction. The Middle East is not much less democratic than it was fifteen years ago. Latin America I think is distinctively more democratic today, if you look at Brazil, Argentina and Chile, for example. I think overall the world has made a lot of progress towards more democracy. I think it is desired from every point of view. Iran is less dangerous now, apart from the nuclear issue, than it was right after the theocratic revolution. Egypt is autocratic today, but it has been that way for a long time. Saudi Arabia would certainly need to move towards more participation in democracy Jordan is about the same. So I do not see a current danger here.

The European union is a very successful development. The democratic states are getting together and if they find that another European country trying to join the union can't live up to the democratic standards they will work together towards that aim.

It is too early to be pessimistic about Russia. Russia is still in an early phase and the 90s were certainly a chaotic period, but to me that is one of the biggest diplomatic challenges in the near future to bring in Russia and China into the international community to build on the interdependence which is already tremendous on the economic level rather than to fall back into the traditional balance of power policies and expanding NATO not only into Georgia and Ukraine, but Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Senator McCain is talking about all democratic states should join the NATO, but that to me looks like you are trying to divide the world again into good and evil and I am very skeptical about that. I think that we have to mobilize all, considering the problems the world is facing. Global warming is not only affecting democracies but the world. So the world has to cooperate on global issues.

You turn 80 years old in June. Would you like to retire?

Well I sometimes get asked when I am going to retire and I'm not quite sure what to make of that question. I used to answer that I retired three times and I'm not going to do it again...