'Common Sense' Will Guide Iraq Inspections

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Hans Blix, United Nations weapons inspector for Iraq

Hans Blix arrives in Baghdad Monday on a mission to test Iraq's compliance with a UN Security Council ultimatum on disarmament. As head of the UNMOVIC inspection team, Blix will supervise the new inspection program. And it will be up to him to report any Iraqi violations to the UN Security Council — an action that would likely spark a U.S. invasion. But Blix rejects any idea that the choice between war and peace is in his hands, preferring to see himself simply as a polite but firm detective out to do nothing more (or less) than establish the facts. TIME caught up with him in his modest UN office in New York on the eve of his departure.

TIME: The Bush administration assumes that Saddam Hussein has active weapons programs that he plans to conceal from your inspectors. Does UNMOVIC share that operating assumption?

BLIX: I wouldn't say that we have any assumption at all. Nor do we give any benefit of the doubt. We have to try to establish the facts. [We have] first of all to examine the declaration that Iraq should make before the 8th of December. Hopefully it will be a very detailed, factual account. And secondly, we have a great many sites that we intend to visit.

We have a great deal of respect for the intelligence organizations [that contend Iraq still has active weapons of mass destruction programs], and contact with them. However, we are not confirming what they say . . . . It may be true. I'm not contesting it; I'm also not confirming it because we have to go by evidence.

TIME: What if Iraq now declares programs that it previously denied, thereby admitting violations of previous undertakings?

Well, if they declare that they have a lot of mustard gas now, after having denied it before, everyone will say, "It was not correct what you said before." However, I think that the inclination of the Security Council will be to welcome any revelations and welcome the opportunity to eradicate such weapons, rather than saying "Now we will send an army on you."

TIME: You reject the idea that your mission will decide between war and peace. And yet you have a substantial element of discretion to determine whether or not Iraq is complying. It will be up to you to determine whether a locked door, a traffic jam or a missing scientist that hampers an inspection will be reported to the Security Council as a violation. What guidelines will you use?

I think it's very hard to envisage all the situations. You mentioned a number of them — you have a traffic jam that delays you, is this a genuine traffic jam? You may have a flat tire [en route] to a target. Is it one flat tire? Four flat tires? [Any denial of access] you have to report. If it is flagrant, then it is easy. And if it is trivial, then it is easier [to decide on how to respond]. But there may be cases in which it is difficult to judge. It's going to really be a matter of common sense.

TIME: Are there any grounds that Iraq could find for denying you access to a particular site? For example, a presidential site where Saddam Hussein happens to be sleeping at the time?

Well, let's face the problems when we come to them. (Laughs). Can't you invent an even more difficult case? (Laughs)... We will (perform all our inspections) in a professional manner, that will try to avoid any insults or any humiliations.

TIME: You have often stressed the need to avoid provocative behavior. You've even given your staff sensitivity training...

That's not a word that I like, "sensitivity training." We've given them some lectures about Iraq's history and culture and religion. Even here we would like to stay within common sense. (Laughs) I like common sense a lot, actually.

We want the inspectors to behave as we expect local police to behave. We want them to be firm and effective, but correct. There's no softness in this approach, but there's a correctness we would like to have.

TIME: That comment about softness sounds like a response to Washington hawks who say that Hans Blix is not the man for the job...

"Because he's soft." Well, it's true that I prefer peaceful solutions to armed solutions. And so, it seems to me, does your president. I'm not a pacifist. I think that you may have diplomacy that has to be backed by force. You may also need to have inspections which are backed by the authority of the Security Council and a readiness to react. That's important for the effectiveness of inspections.

TIME: Some cite the fact that Iraq and North Korea maintained undetected nuclear programs during your tenure as head of the IAEA to question your ability to do the job. How do you respond?

It is true that the IAEA did not [discover Iraq's weapons program] in 1990. [That] was due to the fact that they were limited ... to visiting declared installations. The IAEA tried ... to broaden its mandate, to go to places which were not declared. But there was no readiness among the governments at the time ... to give such prerogative to the IAEA. So, while I readily admit that the IAEA did not see it, it was the result of a system that was not sufficiently strong. Criticizing the IAEA over North Korea is totally misguided. It was the IAEA that triggered the crisis [over Pyongyang's nuclear program in 1994], because we discovered ... that the North Koreans had reprocessed more plutonium than they had declared.

There has also been criticism of the IAEA in Iraq on the grounds that we were reputedly soft. However, everybody agrees that if there is some sector [in Iraq] that is clear, or was clear at the end of 1998, it's the nuclear sector. So I don't think we did so badly.

TIME: UNMOVIC relies on UN member states for intelligence. But cooperation with intelligence agencies hostile to Iraq bedeviled the previous inspection regime, UNSCOM. Will the relationship with intelligence agencies be handled differently this time around?

Yes. Although not going into detail about what happened in the past, it seems clear to me that the UNSCOM lost its legitimacy in the eyes of the world by [having] too close a relationship with the intelligence agencies, and by being too heavily influenced by governments. UNSCOM was dependent, for its activities, on voluntary contributions of personnel, equipment and intelligence. Former members of UNSCOM have described a number of things that came to discredit them. World opinion, not only Arab opinion but world opinion turned in favor of the Iraqis and against UNSCOM at a time when UNSCOM was trying desperately to find something. This should not be so.

The answer was given by the Security Council: You must be a UN organ; you report to this Council, the whole Council, not individual members. Build up your organization as a UN organization. Recruit people on a broad geographical basis. Competence comes first, but a broad geographical recruitment comes second. This is what we have done.

We want [intelligence] from as many sources as possible. We want diversity, we don't want to be led by the nose by any one of them. We have to examine it critically because there's a lot disinformation around the world, and the more information you have, the better you're able to compare. We think [intelligence support for UNMOVIC] should be in principle a one-way traffic. It is in governments' interests that they should [point us] to interesting places, and if we then find something that is significant, that is the reward — rather than "you give me a piece of information; I give you a piece of information." There has to be some measure of dialogue. We have to tell them what we think is interesting, what type of information we would like to have.

TIME: How do you deal with the pressures created by the competing agendas between different members of the Security Council?

The U.S. government is strongly interested in the case of Iraq, and we will get recommendations from them. And we will also listen to recommendations of what the other members of the Council have to say. For us, the best situation is when the members of the Council are united, and this resolution is a unanimous resolution, so that's fine. If they were divided, our job would be very much more difficult.

But, of course, under this resolution there are tensions. There are points where (member states) may interpret things differently, and of course then we will also feel the tensions. This is not easy to handle. We will have to (be guided by) the language, what does the resolution actually say. And if (one member state) tries to press us, we have to say sorry, but we are the servant of the whole Council. It may not be easy.

TIME: Speaking personally, is there anywhere Hans Blix would rather be headed next Monday than Baghdad?

(Laughs) No, no, this is my job. But I would like to see my wife. I haven't seen her for quite some time. We are very happy. That would be fine. Stockholm is also a very nice place.