BANGKOK - As Iran and the European Union go into talks in Geneva Tuesday on Tehran's nuclear program, former U.N. chief weapons inspector Hans Blix said the possibility of the United States attacking the Middle Eastern country, at this juncture, seemed remote.
But he warned that if a U.S. military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities were to take place, Washington could face a huge Iranian nationalist backlash.
'' I think the restraining element in this must be that the United States must know if they launch an attack, there (possibly) could be (a nuclear) retaliation,'' said Blix.
''There is uncertainty. They (the U.S.) may not know that the Iranians might be hiding some (nuclear weapons) prototype somewhere. They (the Iranians) have the designs and they have the technology,'' he told journalists late Monday at the Foreign Correspondents Club, here, in a program organized by the Vienna-based International Peace Foundation.
''The public of Iran is divided with regard to the theocracy - a great many people in Iran are sick and tired of it and would like to see a liberalization of the regime,'' said Blix. ''But the moment the U.S. goes strong on them, there would be a patriotic attitude - there will be a nationalist backlash.''
Added Blix: ''There is already a considerable negative attitude towards the U.S. in the Middle East. This could make things worse.''
New U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Friday said that a military strike against Iran was ''simply not on the agenda at this point,'' but her boss President George W. Bush has not ruled out military strike as an option.
The EU, led in the talks by Britain, France and Germany, is calling on Iran to totally dismantle its nuclear fuel program but Iran insists that it has the right, in accordance with international treaties, to work on the nuclear fuel cycle.
Iran is currently suspending all uranium enrichment-related activities to fulfill its part of a deal clinched in November with the European trio, the so-called EU3, for talks aimed at giving the Islamic Republic trade, security and technology bonuses.
The meeting in Geneva will be the third round of talks since they began in December in Brussels.
Under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), a country is allowed, under inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to enrich uranium to a level needed for nuclear power. Most however do not. They get fuel from others.
The key problem is that the same technology can also be used to enrich uranium further in order to make nuclear weapons.
Iran says that it needs to develop nuclear power despite its oil because it wants diversity. It also wants to enrich its own fuel because it says it cannot trust others.
''It's conceivable that the United States is sitting on the sidelines and leaving it to the Europeans to negotiate,'' said Blix.
''I think the Europeans have been on the right track and as I said I cannot guarantee that the Iranians are not just temporizing - there could be something building up. You have to be skeptical in this business,'' revealed the former weapons inspector.
According to Blix, there will be pressure from the Arab nations on Iran not to take the path of developing nuclear weapons.
''The Arab world does not want Iran to move on (in the nuclear weapons direction) because they know if Tehran does, the chances of Israel moving away from nuclear weapons will be much less. If the Iranians are moving on, for sure the Israelis will continue on their path,'' he stressed.
According to the Arab TV news network 'Al-Jazeera', Blix is ''the man the United States loves to hate''.
Even before he was appointed in 2000 to the task of verifying Iraq's compliance with disarmament promises made after the 1991 Gulf War, Washington was already plunging the knife into his candidacy.
U.S. hawks opposed his appointment saying his failure to turn up Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) in his previous stint as head of the IAEA between 1981-1997 proved he had been outwitted by the Iraqis.
From then on the relationship has been frosty.
Blix stayed on as head of the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) till the end of June 2003.
''We have to keep our feet on the ground. Are WMDs the greatest threat to the world?'' asked Blix.
''We have nuclear threats which are less at this point in time than it used be to when the world had the doctrine of 'Mutually Assured Destruction' or MAD - where the United States and the former Soviet Union could have erased each other during the Cold War,'' he pointed out.
''If you ask someone in Africa, they would say the greatest threat to them is HIV/AIDS,'' he continued. ''If you ask me I'd say the threat to the global environment is more dangerous than the threat posed by WMDs.''
Copyright © 2005 IPS-Inter Press Service