Hans Blix believes the Bush administration is courting catastrophe in its handling of Iran.
“It is playing at very high stakes,” Mr. Blix said. “The risk is that a spark could fly and that things could happen unexpectedly.”
Mr. Blix’s dark warnings come at a time of particularly high tension. The United Nations is grappling this week with what to do about the recalcitrant regime in Tehran, with the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad virtually certain to breach a Wednesday deadline for suspending its uranium-enrichment program.
What will the world body do next? The U.S. is insistent that the pressure on Iran must be intensified. Other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council—notably Russia and China—are much less enthusiastic about such a course.
Meanwhile, Mr. Ahmadinejad told a crowd in northern Iran on Feb. 20 that his country would stop enrichment and enter talks—so long as Western nations also closed down their own “nuclear-fuel-cycle program.”
“Then we can hold dialogue under a fair atmosphere,” the Iranian president said.
Mr. Blix, who led U.N. weapons inspectors in Iraq in the run-up to war—and who earned the deep enmity of Washington hawks for his circumspection—spoke by telephone from his home in Sweden. He is now removed from U.N. politics, plying his trade for the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, a body funded primarily by the Swedish government.
Liberated from the constraints of forced diplomacy, he is scathing about the U.S.’s refusal to negotiate with Tehran, in particular its demand that Iran must suspend its uranium-enrichment program before such talks begin.
“The U.S. is sitting down with North Korea while they are making plutonium! Yet they are refusing to sit down with the Iranians,” he said. “A big part of it seems to be about humiliating the Iranians. It’s like, ‘Say uncle!’ The U.S. wants the Iranians to say uncle before it will sit down.
“The West has painted itself into a corner with Iran,” Mr. Blix continued. “The Iranians are willing to talk about anything. All they have said is that they are not willing to close enrichment before the talks begin. Well, that is just like playing poker. Who gives away their trump card before you start to play?”
Mr. Blix earlier this week wrote a syndicated column that appeared in the International Herald Tribune and on the MaximsNews.com Web site. Headlined “Will The U.S. Attack Iran?”, it noted that two U.S. aircraft carriers are now in the Persian Gulf.
“The military build-up is either to scare Iran or to prepare for attacks on Iran,” he wrote.
In his interview with The Observer, Mr. Blix said that he was not yet convinced an attack on Iran was imminent. But he believes that that has more to do with the realities of American politics than any lack of bellicosity on the part of the Bush administration.
“On balance, I think it is unlikely they will do it. The U.S. public seems averse to more military adventures,” he said.
He also cautioned that belligerence towards Iran would be likely to have effects that would be counterproductive from an American perspective. “The hardliners inside Iran would be strengthened by an attack,” he said.
“The Iranians are clearly divided,” he added, referring to increasing domestic dissatisfaction with the presidency of Mr. Ahmadinejad. “But if the country was to be attacked from abroad, I think you would very quickly see a return of nationalistic fervor. If they were attacked, the argument about why they should have a weapon would also become even stronger.”
For Mr. Blix, full negotiations with Tehran are by far the best option. And he believes in the carrot as well as the stick.
“Iran has never been offered any security guarantees,” he asserted.
He again drew a contrast with the negotiations with North Korea, which have long incorporated a U.S. pledge not to attack or invade in return, essentially, for good behavior from Pyongyang.
“In negotiations, it is always the same: If you think the other fellow is terribly anxious, you can make use of it—but if you don’t, you can’t extract anything,” he said. “With North Korea, it was the U.S. which was anxious to get talks going. The North Koreans wouldn’t concede anything in advance.”
Mr. Blix said he was aware of the domestic difficulties the U.S. might have in negotiating directly with Mr. Ahmadinejad or his representatives, but he argued that the potential benefits would far outweigh the costs.
“Of course, it might be more politically difficult for the U.S. to sit down with Iran—I realize that.
“But,” he added dryly, “it might also be less unpleasant than another war.”
Mr. Blix was equally critical about other aspects of U.S. foreign policy. In his syndicated article, he described the situation in Iraq as a “debacle.” Asked if he saw any hope of circumstances improving there, he answered, “No, I don’t see any.”
He added: “The Iraqis are not empowered, whatever the U.S. says about it being a sovereign nation. For, so long as the U.S. is there, the various Iraqi groups will not finally come together. Only when the U.S. says, ‘We are leaving and we will have no bases there,’ will the Iraqis say, ‘We have to get our act together.’”
To Mr. Blix, the fundamental first step is obvious. Referring to American withdrawal, he said: “A timetable is desirable.”
Turning his attention back to Iran, the former weapons inspector expressed horror at the notion of a supposedly “surgical” strike on Iranian nuclear facilities.
“It would be absolutely catastrophic,” he said. “It would be an entirely new game if anyone started to bomb nuclear-power plants. I’m altogether against it. It is the worst possible option, aside from attacking civilian centers.”
Mr. Blix believes that more time for inspections and negotiations could have helped to avert war in Iraq. He is insistent that the same mistake should not be made again.
“There is time with Iran. The C.I.A. says they are five to 10 years away from having a bomb. The Israelis, they will probably say one or two years,” he said. “But there is time.”