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Q&A: When Intelligence Is Used Unintelligently

David Cronin interviews HANS BLIX

BRUSSELS, Oct 3 2008 (IPS) - All eyes were on Hans Blix, the seemingly unflappable Swede, on TV screens around the world before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Hans Blix Credit: Martin Naucler

Hans Blix Credit: Martin Naucler

As head of a United Nations inspection team, he was vilified by hawkish figures in the Bush administration, who felt he was concealing the existence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in order to prevent a war. The subsequent failure of the U.S. military to locate any such weapons has vindicated Blix. Even the most ardent defenders of military action have had to concede that the reason why Blix could not produce a 'smoking gun' was because Iraq did not have WMD.

Since his inspections were wound up earlier than he had hoped, Blix has been asked to establish the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, an international body funded by the Swedish government.

IPS: You are best known for your weapons inspections work in Iraq before the war started. Do you still feel frustrated about that period, and do you feel that you were not allowed to complete your work because the U.S. was so eager to go to war? Hans Blix: It is a great tragedy.

I'm not against intelligence operations. They are necessary and indispensable. But there was a failure in some places, in the U.S. and Britain, to appreciate that they are paying for the UN (United Nations) and the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) and for the inspections that we do. If we find nothing, they must start to ask why is that? Are these guys nuts or is because perchance that there is nothing? Instead, they simply relied on their own intelligence, on listening and bugging devices and on defectors in particular and interpreting satellite images.

Washington and London had enough evidence that should have at least driven them to accept more inspections. If there had been more inspections, let's say for another few months, I think it would have been more difficult to start the war.

IPS: What are the main threats posed by weapons of mass destruction today? Is the West correct to be preoccupied with Iran and North Korea, or could there be other threats that our governments are ignoring? HB: I think it is correct to be preoccupied by these two cases. It is often said in the Western world, especially in the United States, that the various dangers are of the worst weapons getting into the worst hands and by that they refer to states of concern, to use the polite term – or rogue states, to use the colloquial expression – and to non-state actors.

I think that while these threats are highly significant, I would not necessarily say that they are the greatest threats. At the moment, there is the growing tension that we have had between Russia and the U.S. Both the U.S. and Russia have a common interest in keeping world trade going and in handling the threat to the planet. The current level of (military spending comes to) 1.3 trillion dollars and over half of that is American. If half of that could be used for the protection of the planet, it would be very good.

The two cases that you mentioned are acute ones, but let's remember that the world is not milling with would-be (nuclear) proliferations. The whole world is adhering to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (which opened for signature in 1968), apart from the three that didn't join – India, Pakistan and Israel – and North Korea, that withdrew from it.

I cannot point to any other case. Iraq was handled by the use of force. And it was handled in 1991, not in 2003. Libya was also handled, not by the use of force but by economic sanctions and promises, carrots of allowing Libya to come out of its pariah status.

North Korea is not an easy country to negotiate with. However, the two most important points with regard to non-proliferation is that they have a perceived need for security, they have the experience of the Korean War in 1950. And the U.S. has held out the promise that with a settlement of the nuclear issue, they would give a guarantee of security and that North Korea's status in the world would be recognised, it would not be pushed aside as a pariah state.

Precisely these two points have not been seen in negotiations with Iran. The question of Iran's security has not come up, except in a tangential way, nor has the question of diplomatic relations.

The U.S. has acted in the opposite direction with what they did with North Korea. They have said 'first you suspend (uranium) enrichment and thereafter we sit down and talk'.

North Korea and Iran ought to be solvable. If they are solvable, I do not see any other acute threat on the horizon.

IPS: I'm not asking you to defend Iran's nuclear programme. But would it be logical for Iran to develop nuclear weapons, given that another country in its surrounding region – Israel – already has them? HB: I don't think the Iranian nuclear programme is at all in response to Israel's. I'm not saying that Iran is aiming for a nuclear weapon. There are good reasons to suspect that the intention has existed, although I don't think the evidence is conclusive.

The Iranians began their programme in the 1980s. At that time, if they thought of security it must have been Iraq. In that case, they were rightly preoccupied because that was the time that Saddam Hussein began his nuclear programme.

I can fully understand why Israelis abhor (statements by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has reportedly said he wishes to remove Israel from the map). But Iran does not have a track record of geographical expansion. It has a track record of supporting Shiite movements, yes. But not otherwise.

But if Iran goes on and develops a nuclear capability, the domino effects could be significant. The long-term effects in the Far East of North Korea going on could be worse because that is bound to have effects on public opinion in Japan, which has been strongly opposed to nuclear weapons.

There remains the question of non-state actors. The concern about non-state actors does not justify military rearmament. You do not fight terrorists in laboratories or with aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf. It is more of an intelligence and police operation.

IPS: Both the U.S. and Europe are offering cooperation to India with its nuclear programme. Do you have concerns about this? HB: There are two aspects of this: the energy aspects and the strategic military aspects.

I think it is desirable that India, which has a viable nuclear power sector, can partake of global development. Having said that, the non-proliferation aspect of the deal is worrisome.

India has a shortage of uranium of its own. But what they have on their own is not under any verification. Whether or not they will use uranium for a weapons-grade system, we do not know. However, it is possible that Pakistan and China will suspect that that will. That could set off a race in the area and that is highly undesirable.

The motivations of the U.S. are very unfortunate. It is clear from the statements of (Vice-President Dick) Cheney and others that this is part of building a chain around China.

I think we should have a policy of integrating China into the world rather than of surrounding it. And I see a parallel to this chain in the ambition to expand NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) around Russia.

IPS: What is your view of the missile defence shield that the U.S. wishes to install in Poland and the Czech Republic? HB: This is a very unfortunate thing. What I see from comments by experts is that it doesn't seem indispensable at all. These things are bound to look like threats for the Ivans in the streets of Moscow.

IPS: Is there an element of hypocrisy behind France and Britain telling Iran, for example, that it can't have nuclear weapons, when they have nuclear weapons of their own? HB: I think they are increasingly aware that they have a weak moral position by saying that all our nuclear weapons are for keeping order in the world but they are a lethal threat if anyone else has them.

IPS: Can you explain why you are a supporter of nuclear power, when many campaigners feel there is an almost umbilical link between nuclear power and nuclear weapons? HB: I think that for many of the greens, the nuclear issue has become a religious issue. For others it is an issue in which we can discuss the pros and the cons.

You cannot have any energy without some risk. The world has only had two serious nuclear accidents: Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. That is a remarkable record.

The proliferation issue would be much bigger if you had more nuclear power plants than you have now. You can have nuclear power without nuclear weapons such as in Belgium and Sweden. Or you can have nuclear weapons without nuclear power. China for a long time had only nuclear weapons. Israel today has only nuclear weapons.

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