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Q&A with Hans Blix: Iran deal is 'remarkably far-reaching'

Hans Blix, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, talks with msnbc about the good, the bad and the ugly behind the historic nuclear accord.
The Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission Chairman Hans Blix participates in an discussion about Iran's nuclear program on Capitol Hill on Feb. 21, 2012 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty)
The Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission Chairman Hans Blix participates in an discussion about Iran's nuclear program on Capitol Hill on Feb. 21, 2012 in Washington, DC.

Hans Blix is a Swedish diplomat and the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the international organization tasked with monitoring and inspecting Iran's nuclear facilities as part of the July 14, 2015, nuclear deal signed by Iran and six world powers. From 2000 to 2003, he led the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission that searched Iraq for weapons of mass destruction.

On July 20, 2015, Blix spoke with msnbc by phone from Uppsala, Sweden, to discuss the nuclear accord with Iran. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

MSNBC: What is your general impression of the Iran nuclear deal now that you’ve read the text? Do you think it’s a good deal, a bad deal, the best of a few bad options?

BLIX: I think it is a remarkably far-reaching and detailed agreement. And I think it has a potential for stabilizing and improving the situation in the region as it gradually gets implemented.

I’ve seen how some people have said or alleged that Iran got everything – I simply don’t understand that attitude. From the beginning, Iran accepted that they would reduce the number of centrifuges to about five or six thousand; they will commit themselves to have no reprocessing, that is, no plutonium production; they commit themselves to rearrange the research reactor that they are building in Arak so that they it will be less prone or less convenient for plutonium production; they limit the stores and stocks they have of enriched uranium; and they agree not to reach to any higher level than 3.67% [enrichment].

RELATED: Obama will veto any legislation that prevents Iran deal 

There are lots of other commitments that they make. What are the commitments on the other side? The commitments are to drop punishment. I do not see that as very onerous. However, having said that, I also think the commitments that Iran makes are not very costly to them in terms of economics. The program for enrichment was too big to be economic; whether they made it bigger out of spite or defiance or whether some of them at the time thought of it as an option of using it for a military weapon, I do not exclude [the possibility].

But in any case it raised a suspicion in the world about a possible intention to create a weapons option. And they are now scaling down the program to restore the confidence that they are only working for peaceful purposes. That’s how I see it.

MSNBC: You mentioned a number of different commitments Iran has made as part of this deal. As the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), from 1981 to 1997, do you think the agency is up to the task of actually enforcing compliance on those different points?

"I remember they would joke about going to Saddam’s bathroom. People would say, you can’t possibly demand to go in Saddam’s bathroom ... We went to his palaces a couple of times and the only thing we found was some orange marmalade."'

BLIX: The agency’s capacity for inspection has increased considerably since 1991, when we discovered that Iraq had cheated. That was the time we began the so-called “93 plus 2” program, which ended with the adoption of the famous Additional Protocol during the last year I was there as Inspector General. That protocol gives the agency far greater rights then they had originally in Iraq -- far greater rights go to places and demanding declarations of the inspected states and using new techniques, like environmental sampling, which are extremely valuable in many nuclear activities such as enrichment and repossessing, which leave environmental footprints.

So the agency capacity has increased, as has its intelligence capabilities. I had started that already in 1991, asking member states to give the agency intelligence, because the agency can use satellites, yes, but the the IAEA has no spies, no organizations for that purpose, and member countries have intelligence. And so if they find something they could tip the agency and tell them this is something suspect, and the agency has the rights to go and inspect.

However, properly exercising this new, stronger capacity also requires that no member states infiltrate or hijack the inspecting organization. Only a couple weeks ago, Scott Ritter, one of the star inspectors for UNSCOM (the United Nations Special Commission) in the 1990s, wrote an article in the London Review of Books, in which he described in detail how the UNSCOM inspections – and even IAEA inspections – were actually sort of remote control and arranged by the CIA and other organizations. And if inspection is to work well in the future, I think it will require that Iran also has the confidence that [the agency] is an independent force and not simply an arm of intelligence agencies. 

MSNBC: One result of that dynamic is that the nuclear deal contains a compromise wherein monitors can request access to any of Iran’s nuclear sites, but Tehran can delay those inspections for up to 24 days. You mentioned that the IAEA’s technology has improved dramatically, and the Obama administration has argued that nuclear activity is still detectable after many weeks. Still, critics have seized on that 24-day window, saying it’s more than enough time for Iran to hide evidence. Are you worried?

RELATED: What did the U.S. concede in the Iran deal?

BLIX: Well, I don’t think that you ever can have 100% certainty that nothing is hidden. We had that same problem in Iraq, where we had unlimited inspection rights. Even so, if you ask inspectors to prove a negative, I don’t think anyone can do that. And we never did that – neither did the IAEA in the 1990s, nor did we in 2002, 2003.

But that doesn’t mean that inspection is a useless tool. On the contrary, the more techniques they have and the more intrusive it is, the more likely it is that when they do not see anything or find anything, it is because there is nothing. But to say or assert there is nothing, I think it is intellectually very difficult. Even if you occupy Iraq or Iran, you cannot be certain. You cannot prove the negative.

MSNBC: Is that the main lesson you took away from your time as the chief inspector looking for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2002?

BLIX: Yea, we still have items unaccounted for at that time. In Iraq we knew what they’d had with some certainty. And there were lots of items that we were looking for. And they were unaccounted for. But I often said to the Security Council, “unaccounted for” does not necessarily means that it exists. It may or it may not.

But we had unlimited rights there. I remember they would joke about going to Saddam’s bathroom. People would say, you can’t possibly demand to go in Saddam’s bathroom, and my response would be, there are no sanctuaries. And there weren’t any sanctuaries. We went to his palaces a couple of times and the only thing we found was some orange marmalade.

MSNBC: What do you think of the criticism of the “snap back” mechanism in the Iran deal, wherein economic sanctions could be re-imposed if Iran doesn’t hold up its end of the bargain? How realistic is it that we can roll back the clock once Iran’s assets are unfrozen and countries begin to reengage with Iran commercially?

BLIX: I’ve only read accounts of this, and I’ve been surprised by how far it went. There is a mechanism under which the P5+1 [the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- the United States, China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom; plus Germany] will seek to agree [about whether Iran has violated the terms of the deal], and if there’s no agreement, then all sanctions will be resumed. I thought that’s rather an astounding thing, because it means that the veto is removed in the last resort.

Chief United Nations Weapons Inspector Hans Blix as he delivers his speech to the UN Security Council on March 7, 2003 at the United Nations in N.Y. (Photo by Stan Honda/AFP/Getty)
Chief United Nations Weapons Inspector Hans Blix as he delivers his speech to the UN Security Council on March 7, 2003 at the United Nations in N.Y.

However, that is such a big thing if it were to happen that I think it would deter from any frivolous use. Of course there are many people who would like to spoil this agreement and they would put up with allegations and -- as we learned in the case of Iraq -- there is as much disinformation as there is information in this area. And one has to guard oneself against harassment or attempts to plant documents or information that is simply not true.

I mean the most flagrant case we had in the case in Iraq was the document that Mr. Bush referred to in Congress, which was the alleged agreement between Iraq and Niger for the import of uranium, or “yellow cake.” And then it turned out that after the IAEA had been given a copy of it that this was a fake. So one has to be very cautious.

MSNBC: You’ve seen firsthand how the process was misled in Iraq, as you just mentioned. But what about the possibility that inspections are derailed in Iran not by a U.S. push for war, but rather by signatories that don't share our interests? President Obama has said himself he was surprised that Putin put aside other considerations to support these negotiations. Are you worried that Russia or China will use their influence to undermine the U.S. position with Iran in the future?

BLIX: Well, it’s very hard to predict the evolution of foreign affairs. Obama talks about the year 13 and the year 14 -- it’s a very long time frame. I mean, commitments are laid down for long periods ahead. But the world changes. Do we know where China will stand 50 years from now? They will have a lot more power than they do at the present time. So I’m less sure about the long term than the the legal commitments in the agreement, but it’s an area in which the situation changes much in the world.

It may be, if you read it as foreign policy, that the U.S. would hope that better relations with Iran would be more useful in a new world balance between the U.S. and the West on the one hand and China on the other. Who knows? Or it may be that China hopes Iran will sort of drift toward the Asian group, the Shanghai group.

MSNBC: That geostrategic rebalancing you’re describing, with Obama nudging the region toward a more multipolar order, is perhaps one of the reasons foreign policy analysts seem more wary of détente with Iran than arms control experts, who appear largely supportive of the outlines of this deal. How do you factor those political externalities into a deal like this, which will almost certainly expand Iran’s regional influence? Do you take into account the interest of allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia, or is that something you can’t consider when the ultimate goal is nuclear nonproliferation?

BLIX: Well, there’s one aspect of this that I find potentially very hopeful, and that is that the P5, despite enormous tensions between themselves, have succeeded in isolating this case from the other tensions and reaching an agreement. Because this is the way that the U.N. Security Council was meant to act. 

In 1945, the P5 were the victors of the Second World War, and they decided that they would prohibit states from using the threat of force against the territorial integrity and politically independence of other states -- this is Article 2 paragraph 4 of the U.N. charter. But they were not content with that, so they also set up a mechanism that would oppose this rule, provided that the P5 would agree to veto power.

Now, they were not agreeing during the Cold War, hardly ever. It was only in 1990, 1991, when Saddam attacked Kuwait that they came together. At that time, Bush the elder said that this was the new international order -- meaning that the U.N. charter functioned. Well, that was the unipolar world in which it functioned for a while. And I think that many in the U.S. felt they liked that arrangement. But the world changed, and this is going away. With China rising, Asia rising, we are not staying in that unipolar world.

"The alternative mind you, as Obama says, the alternative really is toward war. ... the U.S. Congress may not care about it, but the reaction in the U.N. would be overwhelming."'

The Syrian chemical weapons affair, I think, was the first encouraging example that the P5 would be able to work together in a multipolar world. There the U.S. was prepared to, and Obama was nearly pushed to act as the self-appointed world police and bomb Assad's chemical installations, maybe a few other things, to punish him, which was just saying to Assad, “now you go back to your fighting, but keep it clean boys, don’t use chemical weapons.” It was a rather absurd line. But it also meant acting as a self-appointed world policeman.

And then some people came upon the idea that although the U.S. and Russia weren't part of the chemical weapons convention, there could be an arrangement under which there would be no chemical weapons. And they succeeded in negotiating a solution under which Assad and Syria adhered to the convention and set up marvelously a U.N. mechanism to eliminate the weapons. This was an agreement with the P5. So after Bush the elder in 1991, you now had a second occasion -- in a much more difficult time -- in which the P5 acted together. And here, with the Iranian agreement we have a third.

This has given some hope, limited cases to be sure, in which the P5 have an interest in common that others should not have weapons of mass destruction. Nevertheless, it is quite an achievement and cause for optimism in other cases. Take North Korea -- that would probably be more difficult, but [the P5] have a common interest there, and so this is a feature of the Iran agreement that I find very hopeful.

RELATED: The Iranian perspective on historic nuclear deal

The alternative mind you, as Obama says, the alternative really is toward war. That is to say, the U.S. or the Israelis or both bomb what they can bomb in terms of nuclear installations -- certainly a violation of the U.N. charter. It would be a breach of the obligations of Article 2 paragraph 4 -- they would not have an authorization from the Security Council, and the Russians and Chinese would not go along with it. So again, it would be acting as a self-appointed world policeman. And I think the reaction in the U.N. -- the U.S. Congress may not care about it -- but the reaction in the U.N. would be overwhelming.  

I don’t even think they would have a majority on the Security Counsel for it and I think in the General Assembly, there would be a very strong majority against such a unilateral act. So I think Obama has very good reasons for shying away from war. It may be that he is more influenced by the fact that the U.S. public does not like to send boots on the ground, fine. That may be it. But from an international standpoint, I think that this reticence and unwillingness shown by Obama both in the case of Syria and in this case is desirable and welcome.