Tight race for atomic agency's hot seat
TOKYO - During most of his 12 years in office, Mohamed ElBaradei, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), was a thorn in the side of president George W Bush and others in his administration cleaving to a hard line on Iraq and Iran.
Relations sank after ElBaradei publicly questioned Washington's rationale for going to war with Iraq in 2003 and they never recovered. He openly criticized US hints that it might go to war with Iran over its uranium-enrichment program and deplored Washington's withholding of information on the suspected Syrian nuclear site until after the Israelis bombed it in 2007.
During his three terms as director, the Nobel Laureate ElBaradei turned what was once an obscure United Nations agency dealing with technical issues relating to non-proliferation and himself into a major international figure playing a role in investigating Iraq and Iran and issuing findings often at odds with Washington's own assessments or desires.
In 2005, the US tried unsuccessfully to block ElBaradei's re-election, but now that he is retiring, it has a far better chance of finding a more amenable director when the 35-member IAEA board of governors meets later this week to choose his successor. ElBaradei's term ends in November, and he is not seeking a fourth.
The change in leadership comes at a pivotal time in US-Iranian relations. After three decades of tension and disputes, the administration of President Barack Obama is sending clear signals that it is ready to begin "a new day" to end the animosity.
The two candidates are a study in contrasts. Japan has nominated Yukiya Amano, 62, a career civil servant in Japan's foreign service and well known among international disarmament and nuclear proliferation experts. The other candidate is South Africa's Abdul Samad Minty. Both are their respective country's ambassadors to the IAEA.
Sources close to the agency say the Americans are quietly backing Amano on the assumption he would be "less political" than his outspoken predecessor, meaning, presumably, more amenable to the views of the United States and the rest of the industrialized world. South Africa's Minty seems more cut from the Egyptian ElBaradei's mold.
Minty, who like Amano is a veteran Foreign Ministry official and international civil servant, was a political activist in his country's apartheid days and is said to be more in tune with the style and sympathies of the developing world. It is assumed that Minty would, like Elbaradei, be willing to play a more active role in mediating nuclear disputes, whereas Amano would be more of an administrator and a technocrat, not eager to involve the IAEA in the daily fray. "I don't see myself as a mediator," Amano said.
Both candidates were nominated by their respective governments for the post and have been openly lobbying, ie campaigning, for the position in advance of a closed-door vote by the 35-member executive board of governors on March 26-27. The decision will be announced in June and ratified in September; ElBaradei's term ends in November.
If neither candidate receives the required two-thirds majority, the board can open the polling for additional nominations. ElBaradei was a compromise candidate in 1997, when two other candidates failed to achieve the necessary vote tally. Amano is said to be ahead of Minty, but possibly short of the required supermajority.
A graduate of Japan's elite Tokyo University and even more elite law faculty, Amano joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1972. In a long career as a diplomat he came to specialize in international disarmament issues and nuclear non-proliferation matters.
In addition to normal diplomatic postings, such as consul-general in Marseille, he has served as director of the Foreign Ministry's Nuclear Energy Division in 1993, director general for Arms Control and Scientific Affairs in 2002 and director general for the Disarmament Non-proliferation and Science Department in 2004. He has been involved in negotiations surrounding the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention verification protocol, among others. He serves as Japan's representative on the board of governors and chaired the board in 2005-2006.
Following the nuclear accident at Chernobyl in 1984 in Ukraine, Amano was instrumental in shutting down Unit 3 as chairman of the then Group of Seven Nuclear Safety Group. Perhaps to win more support from developing nations and burnish his technical credentials, he has also alluded to his work in helping to eradicate the Tsetse fly on Zanzibar island and in Ethiopia.
Japan's Prime Minister Taro Aso announced Amano's nomination while attending the opening of the United Nations General Assembly last September, and it is clear the Japanese government puts considerable store in his appointment. Japanese take UN appointments very seriously. Currently only two Japanese occupy top posts in the UN, including Nobuo Tanaka, executive director of the International Energy Agency.
Though not explicitly stated, certainly in the back of the minds of the governors in choosing Amano would be an anticipation of a significant increase in Tokyo's contribution to the agency. The IAEA has been suffering from budget woes for several years and has had difficulty getting members to provide more funds, especially in difficult economic times.
Japan currently contributes about 19% of the IAEA's annual operating budget - second only to the United States, which picks up about 25%. The ratios are roughly the same as the two nations' payments to the UN's overall operating budget. Obama pledged to double the US contribution to the running of the agency during his 2008 campaign.
Amano points to the fact that he comes from a country that experienced two atomic bombings, and pledged that he would be firm against the spread of nuclear weapons. His opponent, of course, can boast that he represents a country that actually disabled its own nuclear weapons stockpile.
Japan is solidly in the Western camp on such issues as Iran. The partnership of Amano-Obama would certainly be a marked departure from the tense ElBaradei-Bush relationship. Amano has already told Reuters news agency that Iran should be treated with respect through fruitful dialogue.
Meanwhile, Obama made a direct overture in a videotaped address to Iran on the occasion of the Nowruz spring holiday. He urged Iran and the US to discuss the issues that divide them with "mutual respect", echoing words that Amano has used on the same subject. Sounds like the men are on the same wave length.
Todd Crowell is a correspondent based in Tokyo.