NEW YORK - Many of the Middle East's most intractable problems could be solved if a deal for Iran's nuclear program is reached, the head of the UN nuclear watchdog agency said Wednesday.
"Iran could be the door to a stable Middle East," International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Mohamed ElBaradei told a think tank in New York.
"I think it's very clear if we succeed on that, it would open the way, finally, to a new era, when Iran and the US... can work together," ElBaradei said at the Council on Foreign Relations, listing Iraq and Afghanistan as two areas where Iran could play a hugely constructive role.
He said there was "a unique opportunity. I see it (for) the first time..., a genuine desire on both sides to seriously engage."
However, ElBaradei warned this optimistic scenario depended on Iran signing up to the proposed deal and on Western powers sticking to diplomatic dialogue.
If Israel were to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities that would "turn the Middle East into a ball of fire," he cautioned.
ElBaradei said "we have no indication, no concrete proof, that Iran has an ongoing nuclear weapons program."
ElBaradei noted that the nuclear push is motivated by Iran's desire to be taken seriously in the region and to be an international partner.
"Iran's program is an effort to force regional recognition of its power," he said. "They believe the nuclear know-how brings prestige, brings power, and they would like the US to engage them."
The IAEA chief, who will soon step down, said that overly aggressive Western conditions were partly to blame for Iran's refusal to cooperate with the international community over its nuclear program.
"There's a lot of mistrust," he said.
And he warned categorically against a military strike against Iran.
"I have been saying for many, many years right now that this is no solution at all," he said. "The maximum is that it will delay the program for two years. You cannot bomb knowledge. All it would do is get Iran... to go on a crash course for nuclear weapons."
He said that Iran had huge potential as a constructive regional player, but "can do a lot of damage in that region."
On a broader note, ElBaradei said that the current basis for nuclear non-proliferation, in which the atomic weapons club is restricted to a handful of countries, is unsustainable.
Citing the widely reported existence of an undeclared nuclear arsenal in Israel, he said, "You cannot have a security system that is not perceived to be balanced."
"The only solution is to rid the whole Middle East of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons," he said.
Likewise, if the United States or Russia want credibility in ridding smaller countries of nuclear weapons, "you have to create an environment in which, in my view, nuclear weapons are regarded in the way we regard slavery or genocide."
ElBaradei had warned against repeating the processes against Iraq with Iran.
“I will always lament the fact that a tragic war was launched in Iraq, which has cost the lives of possibly hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians," he said.
"This was done on the basis of false pretext, without the authorization from the Security Council and despite the Agency and the United Nation monitoring, verification and inspection commission having found no evidence that Iraq had revived its nuclear weapon program or programs involving other weapons of mass destruction," he added.
"It gives me no consolation that the Agency’s finding was subsequently vindicated.”