Today's date:
Spring 2004

How to Strengthen the Non-Proliferation Treaty

Mohamed ElBaradei is director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the world’s chief inspector on proliferation of nuclear weapons. He spoke with NPQ editor Nathan Gardels in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 23.

NPQ | Much has been made of the nexus between terrorism and nuclear weapons. How real is it?

MOHAMED ELBARADEI | This nexus of terrorism with weapons is only potential.

It is not there today.

There is, however, a more real nexus of terrorism and radioactive material. It is easy for terrorists to get their hands on such material and make a “dirty bomb” that would disperse radioactivity. This kind of bomb is not a nuclear weapon that will cause massive fatalities, but it will create panic and terror.

Unless terrorists steal a ready-made nuclear weapon, it is very difficult for them to enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium and have the engineering capacity necessary. Though not impossible, this is unlikely.

NPQ | What about a nuclear state passing weapons to so-called “non-state actors”—terrorists?

ELBARADEI | I don’t see that happening. I don’t know any state, whatever its orientation, that would like to give terrorists a nuclear weapon.

NPQ | An unofficial American delegation visited North Korea recently and reported that the 8,000 spent fuel rods at the Pyongyang reactor site were missing. The North Koreans claim they are reprocessing them for bombs. With that material, some say, they can soon possess 10–13 bombs. Is that your assessment also?

ELBARADEI | They always had the capacity. Now that the spent fuel is missing, the likelihood they have reprocessed it for bombs is much higher. North Korea is an insecure and beleaguered country. That sense of insecurity, along with its capacity, make North Korea the most dangerous non-proliferation situation in the world today.

In this case, military intervention is not possible because the cost would be so high. So, we need to bite the bullet on diplomacy whereby the North Koreans get a security assurance—to which they are entitled—in exchange for giving up their nuclear weapons capability. And they need as much “carrot” as we can give them.

NPQ | If they have really reprocessed the fuel, what time frame is involved in making new weapons?

ELBARADEI | That depends on whether they already have the designs and a manufacturing process in place. We don’t know that. It is a country that has lots of nuclear engineers and physicists. It is not impossible for them to have been working on these things. We are talking months or years. Not a long time.

NPQ | There is some dispute over whether the North Koreans have a uranium enrichment process in place, or whether they even said they did, as the United States insists. What do you know?

ELBARADEI | We don’t have a clue. The only way to know is for us to go in and verify the facts.

NPQ | What have you learned from Libya’s recent turn to transparency on its nuclear weapons about the international procurement network that provides the wherewithal to build such weapons?

ELBARADEI | It reveals what we suspected in the past—but not to this extent. There is a very sophisticated black-market network of proliferators globally who sell nuclear material and equipment. The revelation of how extensive this network has become is the real worry; it is like organized crime and the drug trade. Things are designed in one country, manufactured in another, shipped to yet another and redirected again through yet another country. Our major focus right now is to understand this cartel—so we can neutralize it—and find out who else has been supplied through this network like Libya.

This new light on the subject is the real significance of recent events in Libya, which after all was only in the very early stages of trying to make a nuclear weapon.

NPQ | Iran recently agreed to submit to IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) inspections under duress of sanctions, or worse. In doing so, it revealed just how far along it was in making nuclear weapons.

To US hawks, this is a case in point of the “ineffectiveness” of IAEA—that under the guise of a civilian nuclear program supervised by IAEA under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), they were working on weapons. What do you say to that?

ELBARADEI | A lot of that is bogus. You cannot discover preparatory work for enrichment activity at the lab scale. There is no monitoring system in the world that could discover that—not even our authority in Iraq could have done so—unless you have a lucky piece of intelligence.

The IAEA system—like satellite intelligence—is designed to detect activities only at the large, industrial scale. In Iraq or Libya, too, how would you detect a nuclear program at an early stage with one centrifuge being tested?

So, it is not that Iran was using the NPT as cover. It could have done that whether it was in the NPT or out of the NPT, and no one could have ever discovered that. The important thing is to have a system that can detect a nuclear weapons program that is mushrooming into production scale. We need every piece of evidence we can get.

Intelligence is thus key to our work right now, from satellites to environmental sampling. Any country that has intelligence, especially the US, should let us have it now. We can’t operate without information.

The idea that somehow it is easier for a country to build weapons under the cover of NPT—or perhaps not be in NPT at all—is really misplaced. It is only through the NPT that we, through diplomacy and pressure legitimized by a treaty commitment, can get in to do inspections.

Without the NPT we would not be able to go anywhere in Iran or to get it to admit the scope of its programs.

NPQ | How much intelligence does the US share with the IAEA, for example on North Korea?

ELBARADEI | It should. I’m not sure it shares all it has. Often the timeliness is not optimal.

For example, the Iraq Assessment Group’s report by David Kay has not yet been given to us, though we’ve asked for it! Yet, we still have a mandate to affirm that Iraq has no nuclear program. That doesn’t give me the feeling we are getting all the intelligence we need.

NPQ | Are you concerned about the security of the old Soviet nuclear arsenal? After all, there are more weapons and fissile material there than all the ambitions of the rogue states multiplied could muster.

ELBARADEI | I am indeed concerned. This is the most dangerous stockpile. A significant quantity of uranium or plutonium or, God forbid, an entire weapon can be stolen from this stockpile.

Making these stockpiles safe is mainly a matter of resources. And the resources haven’t been available, though many legislators in the US are pressing the Bush administration to increase funding for the so-called Nunn-Lugar program aimed at making ex-Soviet stockpiles secure.

NPQ | By allowing “peaceful” nuclear production, but not weapons production, the NPT in a sense enables countries to arrive at the nuclear threshold under its cover. What are your ideas for altering this reality and strengthening the NPT?

ELBARADEI | The NPT is more than 30 years old. Like any other set of rules, it needs to be changed to fit new realities.

We have seen in Iran, Iraq and Libya that there are a lot of loopholes in the NPT that need to be fixed.

The first thing we need to do is limit the right of countries to enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium as part of their civilian program. That puts them very close to the margin of producing nuclear weaponry if they decide to do so. Even if they are under safeguard, it only takes a matter of months to transform plutonium or highly enriched uranium into a weapons. That is not the kind of security comfort we want to have.

Second, we need a complete overhaul of the export control regime so that sale of sensitive technologies and fissile material is more tightly constricted. Such controls must have the legal force of a treaty instead of being, as they are now, a kind of gentleman’s agreement.

There must be a legally binding, universal agreement under an extension of the NPT not to export sensitive technologies and materials without proper procedure and identification of end use.

Third, the IAEA needs further authority for more intrusive inspections, as we discovered were necessary after the 1991 Iraq war. Without such authority, we cannot provide comprehensive, authoritative assurance of our inspections. Yet, only one-third of the NPT members have agreed to this.

Fourth, we have to review the clause that says a country may leave the NPT with three months’ notice. In my view, proliferation should be treated like slavery or genocide. There should be no right to proliferate—period—whether you are in or out of the treaty.

Finally, you need a commitment of the nuclear states to move toward total disarmament. They still possess 30,000 nuclear warheads. This commitment must have timetables and embrace certain key steps forward, such as agreeing to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The CTBT was always seen as the jewel in the crown on the NPT, an agreement that stops the production of any additional plutonium or HEU (highly enriched uranium) for military purposes.

NPQ | The spirit of the NPT was based on a tradeoff: Aspiring nuclear powers would limit their ambitions in exchange for the nuclear club ultimately disarming. Yet, at this moment, the US is planning a modernization of its nuclear force, not its dismantlement. Doesn’t that undermine the NPT?

ELBARADEI | Absolutely. If you want an enduring regime, it can only be based on equity. As we are seeing, a regime based on haves and have-nots will not long endure.

NPQ | How can one force Iran to come clean and be more transparent on its nuclear program, yet not Israel?

ELBARADEI | You can’t. What applies globally applies regionally. An imbalanced security structure can’t last. Perfect security for one country is perfect insecurity for another. You can’t ask Libya and Iran to give up all their nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, yet let Israel keep what it has.

If you want real peace in the Middle East, you must have a new security structure parallel to the peace process that aims to eliminate weapons of mass destruction, limits conventional weapons and pursues confidence-building measures.

NPQ | Iran and Libya are more transparent with respect to their nuclear programs than Israel?

ELBARADEI | Yes, Iran and Libya are cooperating. Israel is completely out of the game right now. The challenge is to bring it in.