Getting it Right the Next Time: An ACT Interview with Hans Blix

 Interviewed by Miles Pomper, Paul Kerr, and Daryl Kimball.

 Hans Blix, former executive chairman of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) and former director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), spoke with Arms Control Today June 19. He shared his insights on nonproliferation and disarmament issues as well as his account of the momentous events leading to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Some interview excerpts follow. (For a complete transcript please click here)


The Need for Further Disarmament Steps

One of my strong feelings is that we need to get back to dynamic work on the disarmament agenda. I find it so politically puzzling that we have not been moving on this agenda. We were celebrating and recollecting the Reagan era, and Mr. [Mikhail] Gorbachev was here in Washington and recalled the ambitions that they had, to do away with nuclear weapons. I was at the opening of the Cold War, and indeed the end of the Cold War was the greatest thing that has happened for disarmament. Tensions drive armament, and the de-tension, détente, helps to promote disarmament. And it did. Indeed, much has happened. You see the dismantling of weapons, and it’s nice that the problem is rather how to do away with plutonium [more] than anything else.

However, there still remains the fact that this disarmament process [the UN Conference on Disarmament] has stalled in Geneva for a number of years. There are, to my knowledge, no big territorial or ideological issues at stake between great powers and continents or blocs, if there are any blocs any longer. We shall see, of course, more civil wars; we shall see more regional conflict in the world, but we do not see over the horizon any conflict between the blocs, and that being so, it is puzzling that we are stuck in the big disarmament process. A relaunching of the disarmament process would inject a new atmosphere. I’m not going so far as to contend that it would affect the North Korean situation or Iranian situation, but there would be a new atmosphere. It’s hard to work up a great enthusiasm…among the non-nuclear-weapon states at a time when you see a strong reluctance on the part of the [United States] at any rate to move ahead with the big issues that are stuck.

On North Korea, Iran, and Pakistan

I’m probably known to the world mostly as an inspector, and I had that function at the IAEA. But I always felt that the first barrier to proliferation is the political one, and sometimes I feel that, in the arms control community, we tend to look at all these technical fixes and the control of this material, and that’s fine—I’m not against all that. But let us look at what is the basic thing that drives countries to go for nuclear weapons or get more of them: it is security concerns. When you look at Iran; or you look at Israel; or you look at India, Pakistan, Iraq, certainly North Korea, you have to see what are the perceived security concerns they have.

In the case of North Korea, I think it’s absolutely clear that they have that concern. They have been talking about a nonaggression pact, using language that we had around the Stalinist period, and we laugh a little at it. But when you look at what they want, it seems to me that they want an assurance that their borders are inviolable, and I don’t see that that part of the problem should be very difficult. I don’t see anyone who wants to invade North Korea because the problems of taking care of them would be very great.

The other side of the Korean thing may be the more difficult part of establishing inspection, verification, which must be sufficiently far reaching, and you only ever talk about nuclear issues. What about biological and chemical and missiles in North Korea? In Iraq [biological and chemical weapons were] not that irrelevant, but when you come to North Korea, you have the feeling that no one talks at all about it. So, inspection I think will be important and it raises special difficulties in a country so hermetically closed as North Korea. But what must drive them a lot is an almost paranoic feeling that they have no friends. They used to have the Russians, and they had the Chinese, etcetera, and they felt stronger earlier. But today, they feel on insecure grounds, and I don’t think this guarantee should be a difficult one to give.

Therefore, I think that it is right to zero in on the six-party talks and on their demand for a guarantee on inviolability. And when we talk about their demand for oil and for food, etcetera, I [would] see if this can be [done], not as a humanitarian prop-up, but for an evolution of North Korea into a more viable [state]. If North Korea is to have a peaceful exit, what I would like to see would be that the outside assistance, which they no doubt will ask for, be geared toward an economic development in which they will come over in the Chinese direction. Not simply helping them not starve for the next period, but actually leading them somewhere.

Clearly, Iran is [in] an area equipping itself with weapons. You had of course first Israel. But Iran must also be aware that Iraq will now be a sovereign state, and although I hope that there will be effective verification remaining in Iraq after sovereignty is supposed to pass to it, nevertheless the technical know-how still remains in Iraq. And I’ve seen the holes in the Bushehr reactors, which the Iraqis shot with some Exocet rockets in the past. So, I imagine this will also figure in their [Iran’s] thinking.

And while I approve of the diplomatic efforts of the European states,[1] which are also coordinated with the [United States], I think that they must not lose sight of the larger political approach to détente in the Middle East. It seems very far away, and I’m not naïve, and I know it’s not happening tomorrow. However, it has been conspicuous all the time that all the states in that region support the notion of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction. Israel does, and so does Iran…and if one were to tackle the central problem of the Middle East, the relations between Israelis and Palestinians, I think it will also prove easier to tackle the issues of weapons of mass destruction. I’m not at all against the Europeans’ initiative, but I think in all these cases, we need to remember the political dimension.

The [United States] doesn’t have much by way of economic relations with Iran today, but in Europe they do. That should hover in the background. If you begin to brandish them, then it may be counterproductive, especially when you’re talking in the case of Iran. Yes I agree, they have not been forthright, they have not been open, their lack of transparency increases the suspicion—all of that I agree with.

At the same time, when one asks them to renounce or suspend their enrichment capacity, I think one also has to remember there’s a certain pride in these things and [in] technological prowess. I have heard it said, “Why should Iran have nuclear power, they have oil?” No one asked that question when the shah was about to launch a huge [nuclear] project. I think this nuclear technology is part of the feeling that, yes, we are also able to do the most advanced modern technology.

On Nuclear Power and Proliferation

I’m a strong proponent of nuclear power, I’m not against it. Not least today, when we are seeing attacks on pipelines in Iraq and when we have a feeling that terrorist movements are trying to scare away Western technicians or Westerners from Saudi Arabia. Then we are getting into a situation that may be similar to the past fear of a cutting off of supplies of oil. And we should be reminded then that with nuclear power you can at least reduce the reliance upon oil somewhat, not that much, but this is one of the most significant ways of doing it for electricity. In [the] long term, if we were to make use of fuel cell cars, instead of gasoline-powered cars, the hydrogen could be produced with the help of nuclear power.

I do not mind countries like India, certainly a huge country, going for nuclear power. I think that’s desirable. But it also leads me to be an even stronger advocate of nonproliferation and of safety in the operation of reactors and the disposal of waste.

We do have quite a number of non-nuclear-weapon states that have enrichment: Brazil, South Africa, Japan, of course. If we are asking that no one else do it, I don’t think that it can be a hard or fast rule. You may have a country that would develop very fast into using nuclear power much more. And I think it would have to be an arrangement on which you can have some flexibility. Suppose that Ukraine for instance, which has a lot of nuclear power, if they would also go for enrichment. Then I don’t see any absolute obstacle why that should not be so. At the present time, we have licensed five nuclear-weapon states. Should we now license a few more for enrichment, and that’s the end of it? That’s a rigidity. I think we need some sort of flexibility in that for the future.

On Inspections and Intelligence

Recently, I’ve been trying to explain how far can you come with inspection, how useful is it? When Mr. [Vice President Dick] Cheney said, for instance, that the inspections are useless at best and instead [the administration relied on] defectors, he clearly went wrong.

On the other hand, I think it’s also risky to say that inspection is the key. Don’t underestimate it, don’t overestimate it. They are like search machines. They have their merits, and they have their limitations. The great merit is that they can go into any place legally, they can be entitled to go in, and especially with the [IAEA] Additional Protocol,[2] so you can go much further than before. You have the right to have access to the information, to people, to documents, etcetera. But they also have their limitations, they cannot go around the country. For that, they need to have information.

Now what can we do then, with an organization like UNMOVIC? Yes, I would be in favor of a modified mandate that would allow it to continue with a broadened base that could be used ad hoc by the [UN] Security Council. It is not a very expensive item for the moment. They are managing on leftovers from the oil-for-food [program],[3] and that will last for a while. But they will need a budget. And the beauty of it is that they are not dependent upon a standing group or standing army of inspectors. Rather, we had the roster system set up for a different reason: that you were not allowed to go in.[4] And so we created a roster system, we train people, they work at home, and they are available like an international reserve that can go in. And it is very economic, they are given the refresher courses, and they learn the latest techniques. So, with a relatively low cost you could have a reserve for some inspection.

Let me say something more about intelligence and merging or mixing it with the inspection. This is fundamental. We know now, after the Iraqi affair, that international inspectors under the authority of the Security Council or the board of the IAEA came to conclusions that were closer to reality than what the intelligence agencies did. There are a couple of reasons that helped us on the [inspectors] side. One was that we had the Security Council as our master. The Security Council did not push us or breathe down our neck to come into any particular conclusions. They just said, “You do your professional work, and you report accurately to us.” Intelligence agencies clearly felt there was an expectation that they would come up with something that pointed to the direction of the existence of the weapons because their executive branch of the government wanted that, both in the [United States] and in the [United Kingdom].

The other [factor] was the international civil servants concept, which is strong in the [United Nations] and the IAEA. You are there to assemble facts, and submit that to a political level. You are not part of the policymaking. I was very clear to the Security Council that I am not advising what you are to do. I simply am responsible for our job of collecting the data and giving it to you.

In the national governments, I think there has been a risk of the blurring, whether we see it, not only in this particular sphere, but we see of course in many areas where government, executive branch, in the policymaking and selling it to the public, will want to create their own reality. And they repeat again and again the same thing of questionable factual value, and it turns it into virtual reality. I think you might say Iraq is a case where eventually the virtual reality collided with old-fashioned, real reality.

So, [we need to retain] this distinction. Not doing away with intelligence data—they have their role—but keep them apart. And as I said, the intelligence can provide the inspectors with ideas where to go because they have other sources than inspectors do.

On Iraq

And what you can see today, of course, is that, after the Iraqi affair, there is no political inclination to rely too much on intelligence.

So, the whole concept of counterproliferation has been weakened. It’s not gone, because if something is imminent, then sure, they will act. But they can also go to the Security Council and share the responsibility of a decision. I don’t accept their contention that the Security Council is impotent. I saw that [British Prime Minister Tony] Blair said that the council is not there just to talk but also to act. All right. Within a short day or two after that, the council acted within less than 12 hours to take a decision on Haiti. So, if they are agreed, they can act.

But in the case of Iraq last spring, they were not agreed, and I think it was to the credit of the council that they did not authorize the war. Where would we have stood today if the council had said fine to the Spanish-U.S.-[British] resolution, had authorized it on erroneous premises? They were skeptical of the premises; they were right. And therefore, I think it was a good thing that they didn’t authorize the war. And with the present composition of the council, there is no automatic veto. The Russians, the Chinese are not automatically vetoing things. And therefore, the council should not be ruled out as impotent. I think it is there, and if you had a threat that is not within 12 hours, well, I think that you might also share the responsibility in taking action by going to the council.

I never said in the Security Council that I would advise against war. It would be presumptuous of me…. Now my personal wish was of course to continue the inspection, and I think that’s probably how people perceived my attitude. But I did not explicitly ask Security Council to vet that.

However, on the question of the evidence, we were not silent. You will find in my book[5] the description of the conversation with Blair. I have the transcript of it, and it is amusing. I think it was in February [2003]. It makes clear that I do not exclude the possibility that there are still weapons. But I am making clear to him that we were not impressed by the evidence that we had. I do say to him that it would be paradoxical if you invaded with several hundred thousand men and you didn’t find anything. This was in February. And he then said, no, no. All the intelligence agencies are agreed. And to top it off, he said “and the Egyptians too.”

So, I had no doubt at all that he was [acting] in good faith, nor have I ever suggested that President George W. Bush was [acting] in bad faith. But our doubts or skepticism about the evidence began in the autumn because David Albright [president of the Institute for Science and International Security] and his people were doubting the [claim about] aluminum tubes. And I was doubtful about the yellow cake contract,[6] not because I had any suspicion at all that it was a forgery, but I felt that yellow cake is a long way from a bomb. And why should the Iraqis bother to import yellow cake? That was my simple layman thought about it.

But then in January and in February, we went to dozens of sites given by intelligence—U.S., [British] and others—and found no weapons of mass destruction. That shook us quite a lot. Then came [Secretary of State] Colin Powell with his beautiful presentation—I won’t use another noun for it—his beautiful presentation to the Security Council. Perhaps we should have felt humiliated because he was then presenting all these smoking guns we hopeless inspectors had failed to see. However, I felt more like sitting in a court bench, saying, well, the chief prosecutor is now putting forth the evidence; then let’s see what the experts say about this evidence. So, I let our experts dig their teeth into it. Now there were of course many things they could not check, the intercepted telephone calls and so forth that they could not check, but there were several others that they could check and each they were skeptical about.

Now that was when I said I have to go to the Security Council and also register our doubts about the evidence, and I did so. There I referred to three things. I referred to the fact that you cannot say that simply because something is unaccounted for it exists. Secondly, I referred to the sites that we had been to [that were] not building any weapons of mass destruction. And thirdly, I took up the case of the chemical sites, which…Powell had referred to, it was the only one that I took up. I said the trucks that he had seen [that] they thought were decontamination trucks our inspectors had seen.... And we had taken lots of environmental samples and seen no traces of chemicals. So, this was still in February [2003 when] I went before the [Security] Council. Maybe I could accuse myself today of not speaking louder, but that was the only voice that came.

If Inspections Had Continued

If inspections had continued, I think that two things would have happened. First, we would have been able to go to all sites suggested to us by intelligence—[British], U.S., or any other—and since there weren’t any weapons, we wouldn’t have found any. And we would have reported that fact, and I think that ought to have shaken the intelligence agencies. We didn’t have bad relations with intelligence; we were not so antagonistic at all. I think it should have shaken them to say, “Sorry, but then our sources were bad.” Maybe the time was too short, maybe the number of cases was too short for them to retreat on that, or draw that conclusion.

So, that would have been the most important [outcome]. The other thing that could have happened was also important, but slightly less work: that was that the Iraqis gave us at the end of February and the very beginning of March, they gave us long lists of people whom they said had participated in the unilateral destruction operation in 1991. And what we would have done would have been to interview these people. And there are difficulties you have with interviewing in totalitarian countries, but nevertheless there were some 80 or so names and in such a large number if you could interview them, there might have been some hope that we would understand more.

And it was quite clear that, when inspections were over, then you go into long-term monitoring,[7] and there was no end to that. [It] wouldn’t require a specific decision of the Security Council. Now with [UN Security Council Resolution] 1284, this system was modified, and they constantly introduced what they called “reinforced long-term monitoring.” Well anyway, they were reinforced inspections, and so they made no difference between inspection and monitoring and there was no limit set to that. The real limit would not be formal, but it would be the risk of a fatigue in the council; [that is] a beginning resistance from the Iraqi side, and a fatigue in the council, a wish not to implement it, to enforce it. That could have happened but you know, that’s containment. And if they saw a sign of new nuclear things, then they would probably pull up their socks again. So, that’s the risk of containment, yes.

But the result would have been that Saddam [Hussein] would have stayed in power probably. Some people say that he couldn’t have survived the rumor that they had weapons of mass destruction—that’s not so sure, I think. The sole good result of the war I see is the disappearance of one of the world’s worst regimes.

However, what would have been the case then? It would have been a little like [Fidel] Castro, like [Moammar] Gaddafi, who is now supposed to be a good boy. It would have been a situation similar, where the world does not intervene on a humanitarian basis but leaves it to foreign policy by obituary, as The New York Times calls it elegantly, that you wait him out. And it would have had many negative aspects, but it also would have had many positive aspects.


1. See Paul Kerr, “With Deadline Looming, European Foreign Ministers Strike Deal to Restrict Iran’s Nuclear Program,” Arms Control Today, November 2003, p. 24.

2. States concluding additional protocols to their safeguards agreements with the IAEA are obliged to disclose to the agency significantly more information regarding their nuclear activities than they would under their original safeguards agreements. Such protocols also increase the IAEA’s authority to detect clandestine nuclear activities.

3. The oil-for-food program, which allowed Iraq to sell oil and use the proceeds to purchase medicine, health supplies, food, and other supplies “essential” for civilian needs, was created in 1995.

4. After UN inspectors left Iraq in December 1998, the Iraqi government did not allow them to resume work in Iraq until November 2002.

5. Hans Blix, Disarming Iraq (New York: Pantheon Books, 2004).

6. For more background on these claims, see Paul Kerr, “Bush’s Claims About Iraq’s Nuclear Program,” Arms Control Today, September 2003, p. 22.

7. Resolution 1284, adopted in 1999, authorized the creation of UNMOVIC to replace UNSCOM after UN inspectors were withdrawn the previous year and to verify that Iraq had fulfilled its remaining disarmament obligations.