‘We are lucky not to have seen a dirty bomb’

Madhavankutty Pillai has no specialisations whatsoever. He is among the last of the generalists. And also Open chief of bureau, Mumbai  
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Peace Nobel laureate ElBaradei on the dangers and inequities of the nuclear world. And why he admires Manmohan Singh so much.

Q In your book, you imply that the US would have invaded Iraq no matter what the results of the IAEA’s nuclear inspections. At the time, were you aware that the inspections were essentially a pointless exercise?

A No, we were not aware at all. And that’s what [leaves] one rather angry and disappointed. There was a decision and the decision was primarily based on regime change and not [an] imminent threat coming out of Iraq.

Q Did you feel betrayed?

A Well, it was not me who was betrayed. At least for six months, the Security Council was taken up by the Iraq issue. The international community was trying to manage this crisis. So if anybody was betrayed, it was the international community. We were the ones who were instrumental in establishing the facts, but the facts were ignored.

Q The North Korean example perhaps shows that possessing nuclear weapons ensures immunity against an attack like that of Iraq. Is it a given then that we are entering a period of proliferation?

A States that have nuclear weapons say it is essential for their security, but nobody else should touch it. It sends a message to other countries that if you have a security threat perception, one way of providing yourself with an insurance policy is to develop nuclear weapons. Comparing Iraq and North Korea reinforces that perception. I am much more hopeful now with Barack Obama saying we need to work for a nuclear weapons-free world. The treaty that the US concluded with Russia has finally reduced the number of nuclear weapons; it is the lowest since the 1960s. But this has to be followed by a number of treaties and conventions. Things are changing, but not changing fast enough. If we want to save ourselves, we need eventually to treat nuclear weapons as we treat slavery, as something we cannot even think of.

Q You hint that George W Bush should be tried for war crimes. Is that a correct inference?

A My goal in the book is that somebody should be accountable. I am not talking personalities—George Bush or (Tony) Blair. I am saying, who deceived the international community? One million Iraqi civilians lost their lives. A few more million were maimed. Somebody should be accountable, somebody in intelligence, somebody in the chain of command. How will people have trust in international law if it applies only to the poor and weak—the Milosevics and Kim Jong Ils or whoever—and not to the strong and powerful? If you want global security, there are a lot of things to do, but the first thing is to have values or standards that are equal and fair.

Q How close is the world to a dirty bomb? Is it just a matter of time before one explodes?

A It’s very easy to explode a dirty bomb through conventional explosives. You just have to add TNT to a radioactive source. If you do that in an urban centre, thousands of people will die. It’s not a nuclear explosion, but it will terrorise and that’s exactly what an extremist group would want to do. We are lucky we haven’t seen one. Many powerful radioactive sources have not been under any protection after the demise of the Soviet Union. We are in a race against time to locate enough resources and [must] be vigilant enough to secure all radioactive sources.

Q At one point in the chapter on AQ Khan, you say he is dead. He’s still alive.

A I don’t know how the error crept into the book. Maybe it meant the demise of the AQ Khan network. I know he’s very well alive and kicking.

Q Given Pakistan’s track record, do you think its nuclear arsenal is dangerous for global security?

A In every country that has a nuclear weapon, there is an inherent danger that comes with it. It’s much more dangerous when you have a country that’s not stable or has extremist groups. But from what I know, everybody is working with the Pakistanis to make sure that their nuclear weapons are under very tight control. But you worry about everyone. What usually happens is the least expected. You never know, if you ever have a nuclear weapon [explosion], where it will come from. In my view, the solution is to just get rid of it.

Q Is the possibility of another AQ Khan emerging blocked forever?

A It is probably unlikely because the world is becoming much more vigilant. But it’s not impossible. And that’s why we have to continue to investigate AQ Khan. There’s still work to be done to assure ourselves that a) We have seen everything that has to do with AQ Khan, and b) That nobody’s emulating that sinister model. The AQ Khan model has been dismantled to the best of our ability.

Q Should India become part of the NPT?

A I don’t think India being part of the NPT is an option. In my view, that’s not the way it is going to go. India should be part of the global negotiations for nuclear disarmament as a country possessing nuclear weapons. In the meantime, it should work with other states to ensure that nuclear weapons do not proliferate. And I must say India’s record on that score has been excellent. During the AQ Khan investigation, India’s record of keeping tight control of its technology has been exemplary.

Q You are very generous in your praise for Manmohan Singh. What sets him apart?

A To me, he’s a model statesman; a person who’s self-made, has gone from studying under an oil lamp to being the architect re-engineering the Indian economy. He’s still as humble and modest as anybody can be.  He has very few material acquisitions. I find him the perfect example of a public servant. We see pretty much eye to eye on the inequities and insecurities of the world and how we can move forward.

Q You are a symbol of the Egyptian revolution. How do you see democracy shaping up there?

A We are going through a bumpy period. Philosophically, that’s what you expect after a revolution, but we can still do better if everybody understands that you need to have a coherent, transparent political road map that will focus on security and get the economy working again. My view is that we should not rush the transition period because whatever we do right now has long-term implications for the future.

Q Will you run for president when elections take place?

A For now, I will, but I will make the final decision when I am sure that there is a democratic infrastructure [in place] for me to run fairly and squarely.