NEW YORK -- As he prepares to step down as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) at the end of this month, Muhammad el-Baradei has been speaking a lot about Iran and its nuclear program and the challenges that will face the international community.
Addressing the Council on Foreign Relations in New York on November 4, el-Baradei had some advice. He reminded his audience that there is no indication and no concrete proof that Iran has an active nuclear weapons program.
Iran has developed nuclear "weaponization" studies, but not the weapon itself, he said, and that program was apparently halted back in 2003.
But what is important to understand, according to el-Baradei, is why Tehran is pursuing a nuclear program at all. And that has much to do with prestige and getting respect.
"Iran's program is an effort to force recognition of its role as a regional power," el-Baradei said.
"In my view Iran's nuclear program is a means to an end: it wants to be recognized as a regional power, they believe that the nuclear know-how brings prestige, brings power, and they would like to see the U.S. engaging them."
The United States, Britain, France, Russia, and China -- all five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council -- and Germany have repeatedly tried to persuade Iran to halt its own uranium enrichment, although they differ on strategy.
Taking Iran Seriously
Fortunately or unfortunately, el-Baradei said, there is some truth to the fact that Iran has been taken more seriously by the West since developing a nuclear program.
But he said a saw a "unique" opportunity, after years of animosity between the West and Iran, to try for a fresh start. "I see a genuine desire on both sides to seriously engage not only on the nuclear issue, but on the broad range of issues," he said.
El-Baradei said he believed Iran could actually play a stabilizing role in the Middle East if Tehran felt that its demands had been acknowledged and respected by the West. He also noted the opposite would happen if Tehran felt cornered or ignored.
"Iran could be the door to a stable Middle East in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Syria, Lebanon, in the Palestinian territories. And also it could be a source of aggravation of the situation," el-Baradei said.
"Iran needs the U.S. badly in terms of technology, in terms of integration, trade, what have you. So, how to get the two powers engaged?"
El-Baradei gave as an example a proposal to supply nuclear fuel to Iran for its research reactor, which is being used for medical purposes, providing isotopes for the diagnosis and treatment of cancers. He said that could be a perfect way to start a dialogue.
'You Can't Bomb Knowledge'
Asked whether bombing Iran's nuclear facilities might be the ultimate solution to the problem, el-Baradei said that the maximum result from such a move would be to delay the development of Iran's nuclear program for two years. But he warned that this could also turn the Middle East into a "wall of fire."
"You cannot bomb knowledge, as I have been saying. The knowledge is there, the technology is there," he said, "all [bombing] would do is get Iran -- even if they don't want to get nuclear weapons -- to go for a crash course to develop a nuclear weapon with the support of every single Iranian including the 1 million Iranians living in Los Angeles. Because there is a difference between loving my country and hating the regime."
El-Baradei expressed regret for missed opportunities to find common ground. He said that there was a point when Iranians were prepared to halt their enrichment program but he blamed the previous U.S. administration for showing inflexibility.
He argued that the United States, together with Britain, France, and Germany, missed an opportunity to end the standoff by imposing unrealistic conditions on Iran.