PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR: Tensions mounted in the Persian Gulf with last week’s unilateral sanctions imposed on Iran by the U.S. that included targeting the Revolutionary Guard and Iran’s three major banks. American debate continues to centre on the assumption that Iran has or is amassing nuclear weapon capabilities. The work of the IAEA, the U.N. agency that monitors the world’s nuclear energy and weapons programs, is ignored almost completely on U.S. television news. To CNN’s credit, the head of the IAEA, ElBaradei, was the first guest on Wolf Blitzer’s Late Edition on October 28.
WOLF BLITZER, HOST OF LATE EDITION, 28 OCT 2007: Is Iran, Dr. ElBaradei, building a nuclear bomb?
MOHAMED ELBARADEI, DIRECTOR GENERAL OF IAEA: Well, Wolf, let me say three facts to put the Iranian nuclear issue in proper perspective. We’re not talking about Iran today having a nuclear weapon as Secretary Rice said recently. Second, even if Iran were to be working on nuclear weapon, according to John Negroponte and Mike McConnell, they’re at least a few years away from having such weapon.
JAY: To analyze the U.S. debate and ElBaradei’s remarks is Aijaz Ahmad, senior news analyst for the Real News. Aijaz, ElBaradei was pretty clear– there’s no evidence that there’s an atomic bomb program in Iran.
AIJAZ AHMAD, SENIOR NEWS ANALYST: Yes, he’s quite definite that all the inspections so far he has not been able to find any such thing. And his emphasis now is on certain questions relating to past activities, not to the present program. He says at one point, if you look at it closely, no one is actually alleging that Iran has such a program.
JAY: Now, there’s a clip from him where he says this. Let’s take a look at that.
ELBARADEI: I have not received any information that there is a concrete, active nuclear weapon program going on right now. And I think if you hear carefully what is being said about Iran, that Iran might, we suspect that Iran might have the intention, but I don’t think I have seen anybody saying Iran today is working actively on a weapon program. And if there are such information, I would be very happy to receive it and go forwards.
AHMAD: Nobody’s even alleging that there’s a program; the allegation is that there’s some intention. And he says a critical evaluation of the intention is what we are looking at, and that means removal of distrust and kind of negotiation that might be acceptable to Iran, which he says must include a discussion over the issues of global security.
JAY: Secretary Rice, in her announcement of the sanctions, her main thesis was Iran seems to be opposing negotiations and discussions. And then buried down in the statement is, of course, we won’t negotiate until Iran gives up its right—I should say its attempts—to enrich uranium at all. In other words, they should stop doing now, then we’ll negotiate.
AHMAD: The United States actually has put an absolute condition that no negotiation be undertaken unless Iran suspends its uranium enrichment program altogether. Iran’s anxiety is that it’s not a matter of two months or three months or six months, but it’s fairly indefinite. And they’re saying that they have the sovereign right to enrich uranium up to a certain point, and they’re going to exercise their sovereign right.
JAY: And in the American media reportage you barely know there is such a thing as an IAEA, with the exception of this Blitzer interview with ElBaradei. The IAEA process, which is supposed to be the U.N.-authorized process, is being completely ignored.
AHMAD: It’s being completely ignored, Paul, and that has been the case since the lead-up time to the Iraq war, because IAEA constantly kept saying that unless you give us some concrete evidence which we are supposed to verify, we can’t quickly give you an answer. Under the circumstances, when no one gives us any information, we have to go and keep looking for information, which then is a very long, drawn-out process, and that process is not finished.
JAY: Well, ElBaradei mentions a few specific things that they’re still discussing with Iranians. There’s some questions they have about some past acquisitions, some past practices. And there’s an exchange between Blitzer and ElBaradei, and I’ll show it to you now.
ELBARADEI: What we have seen in the past that certain procurements that have not have been reported to us, certain experiments; and that’s where we are working now with Iran to clarify the past and the present.
JAY: So what I find peculiar about American news coverage is that ElBaradei is saying that they’re going through a process. Instead, it’s barely recognized, it’s not even on the radar that the process is happening. No one’s taking it seriously.
AHMAD: Well, the same thing happened in Iraq. Here again this process has been going on for a couple of years. ElBaradei says categorically that everything that we have seen suggests that there is no such program at all. He also says that we know that they don’t have the capacity to undertake such a program at this time. However, there are certain questions from the past that we need to clear up. Now, the reason why I believe the American media ignores all that is that the position that IAEA is taking explicitly and implicitly undercuts the basic presumptions of U.S. foreign policy, and not only presumptions but contemplated actions. The first assumption that everyone talks about is as if they have proven that there is such a program. Sanctions are already in place. ElBaradei is deeply opposed to such a thing. ElBaradei says that it makes the process very difficult. It’s very difficult to negotiate with a country which feels that it is under the threat of imminent war. He is saying back off. War is simply not an option. He says that quite explicitly, that you must go the way of diplomacy unconditionally.
JAY: Just minutes after ElBaradei’s interview, Wolf Blitzer interviewed Senator Boxer and Senator Lott, Democrat and Republican. In fact, Boxer is someone who voted against the Senate resolution that was later used to authorize the Iraq war; she voted against the Kyle-Lieberman amendment that called the Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization. But Blitzer turns to Senator Boxer and says, well, do you believe Iran has a nuclear bomb? And here’s what she says.
BARBARA BOXER, U.S. SENATOR (D): I think Iran probably would love to build a nuclear bomb, but I think that Mr. Baradei is right; they haven’t gotten there yet. When I look at the estimates, it says if they continue on a certain course, it’s three to ten years away. We don’t want that to happen. It doesn’t have to happen. One of the ways to make it worse, it seems to me, is to keep talking about World War III, war, war, war, and all the rest when people see this country went into Iraq based on faulty intelligence, made a huge mistake, didn’t listen to ElBaradei, didn’t listen to our own allies. And look where the world is—not in a good place today.
JAY: So Boxer is telling people to wait. She’s a critiquing the inflammatory rhetoric. But Blitzer doesn’t reference the fact that ElBaradei just said in a very definitive way there’s no evidence of a nuclear weapons program. It’s like the interview never happened. What is with the media completely dismissing what the IAEA is saying?
AHMAD: To actually recognize what the IAEA is saying, you would have to actually challenge all the premises of the American foreign policy. Is the media willing to do that? Now, what you are seeing in the case of people like Senator Boxer is that one of the more liberal members of the U.S. Congress, who is very sensibly cautious about moving too fast, begins with I believe—if it is a matter of your belief against evidence, then the case is closed. And the media is now so much a part of these very assumptions, if you were to actually take IAEA seriously, you would have to stop demonizing Iran.
JAY: But certainly Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric has created fodder to make it awfully easy to demonize Iran.
AHMAD: I can take up all kinds of rhetoric from President Bush, from Dick Cheney, from any of these people. If you are going to go after rhetoric and take it as a matter of serious policy, then you are going to destabilize the world a great deal. The simple fact is that according to the Irani constitution, Mr. Ahmadinejad is not even in charge of Iran’s foreign policy or its nuclear program. He’s not the person who speaks for either foreign policy or the nuclear program. It is directly under the supreme leader, the Ayatollah Khamenei. At the same time, Mr. Ahmadinejad also says we don’t have such a program, and we are against nuclear weapons as such.
JAY: Which is certainly something ElBaradei said too.
AHMAD: Mr. ElBaradei. I support the contention that if you really want to control proliferation of nuclear weapons, you have to go back to the issue of universal disarmament, and you have to start with countries which already have weapons. Now, you would recall that there is on the table a proposal by all the Arab states and Iran to declare west Asia a nuclear-free zone. The United States does not support that, because that would have to apply to Israel.