Q&A with Olli Heinonen

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Interview with Olli Heinonen

Active ImageThe West's confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program has been one of the most strained, high-stakes diplomatic showdowns since the end of the Cold War. As deputy director of the International Atomic Energy Agency and head of its Safeguards Program, Olli Heinonen grew to know more about Iran's nuclear program than perhaps anyone outside of Iran. For Heinonen, a native of Finland who spent 27 years in the IAEA, the Iran case was just the latest in a series of nuclear sleuthing missions, from Pakistan to North Korea. Heinonen resigned from the IAEA in September to become a senior fellow in the Belfer Center. We asked Heinonen to reflect on Iran and his own career.

Q. Since 2002, the IAEA and the West have issued constant critiques of Iran's nuclear program, yet the enrichment goes on. From your new vantage point as a Belfer Center fellow, do you think the overall IAEA monitoring process is effective, or does it need to be overhauled? What changes would you recommend?

Indeed, after 30 reports and half a dozen UN Security Council resolutions, we are still at a stalemate. The IAEA is not able to confirm that all nuclear material in Iran is under safeguards. While the IAEA verification system has been able to throw light on Iran's clandestine activities, which were spread over two decades, it has not made much real progress since summer 2008 in resolving Iran's longstanding issues such as the possible military dimension.

The fact that Iran has repeatedly not heeded UN Security Council resolutions, and challenges the authority of the Security Council and the IAEA Board, has eroded the credibility of the whole NPT verification regime, and sets a negative precedent. There is no single, simple recipe to rectify the current situation, other than to get back to the negotiation table with Iran. The international community has to present clear deadlines and alternatives to Iran, and make clear why it is important to restore Iran's standing as a responsible member of the Non-proliferation Treaty community.

Q. What should people be looking for as they try to assess Iran's nuclear intentions? Is the key issue enrichment, or Iran's access to raw materials such as uranium and aluminum for the centrifuges? What are the warning signs for breakout toward a nuclear weapon?

The first problem is the confidence deficit, which results from almost two decades of clandestine nuclear activities, and subsequent concealment activities. While Iran took steps in 2004 to be more forthcoming, e.g. in applying the Additional Protocol and suspending enrichment, it unfortunately reversed those steps and stopped the early provision of design information when the IAEA started to investigate old and emerging information on possible military dimensions of the program. This together with Iran's drive to push ahead with larger-scale enrichment, when there is no immediate need for that, is puzzling the minds of many people. Iran talks about its rights, but it also knows that with rights come responsibilities and obligations. It is very important that Iran takes those extra steps to rectify the situation.

Q. Iran has kept on enriching uranium, most of it to 3.5 percent purity. But recently Iran has been enriching some uranium up to 20 percent, for the Tehran research reactor. Should the world be more worried by enrichment of 20 percent, knowing that Iran would have to enrich to above 90 percent to produce weapons-grade uranium?

From the technical point of view, there is a big difference in production of 3.5 and 20 percent enriched uranium (U-235%). Going from 3.5 percent to 20 percent enriched uranium also brings an important feature. Iran, like others, does this by recycling the 'tails' of the process, which makes the process more economical. This stage of recycling experience is of paramount importance for anyone who wants to pursue higher enrichments.

Q. Much of our focus is on Iran, but are there other nuclear trouble spots we should be worrying about? How about Syria and its program? Has it regained any ground since the Israeli air strikes destroyed its reactor site in September 2007? How about North Korea?

The Syrian case, and the limited progress made since 2007 is another challenge to the IAEA's verification authority. Without going to too much detail, it is time to consider special inspections - an option available to the Agency - to find out the facts associated with the Al Kibar/Dair Alzour site. I certainly would have preferred that the IAEA got engaged at an earlier stage, but this is the situation where we are today. So let us use the full authorities the IAEA has to make sure that all nuclear activities and materials in Syria are under IAEA safeguards.

As for North Korea, it goes without saying that North Korea should be brought back under the international verification's regime. One lesson to take away from the safeguards cases we have before us is that detections of possible safeguards breaches or violations should be brought before the Board at an earlier rather than later date.

Q. Your wife Yvonne Yew has also joined the Belfer Center as a fellow, studying the non-aligned movement in the Future of Diplomacy Project. What prompted you both to come from Vienna to Cambridge right after you left the IAEA?

I have followed for years the important and unique work of the Belfer Center and the Kennedy School, which have very talented people and a highly motivating environment. The programs do important work and outreach in bringing about a better, safer, and more secure world. It was not easy to leave the IAEA after 27 years of service, but, at this stage, I feel that I may be able to do more by bringing those experiences to this environment. For both myself and Yvonne, we hope that our separate work here at Harvard can contribute to making that difference.

Source: Newsletter Article, Belfer Center Newsletter, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, Winter 2010-11

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