SA, Japan vying to head UN nuclear watchdog

South Africa and Japan have both set their sights on the top job at the International Atomic Energy Agency, when the current chief Mohamed ElBaradei steps down next year, according to diplomats.

South Africa officially named its ambassador to the IAEA, Abdul Samad Minty, as its candidate for the influential position last week.

Tokyo has not yet done the same, but a number of diplomats accredited to the Vienna-based watchdog have said that Japan’s current IAEA ambassador, Yukiya Amano, is in the running as well.

There has also been speculation that IAEA’s current number two, Olli Heinonen, will also stand. And diplomats have suggested that Rogelio Pfirter, the Argentinian head of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Cehmical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague, could be a possible candidate.

The IAEA’s 35-member board, which convenes for its traditional September meeting next week, will not discuss ElBaradei’s successor until a special one-day meeting on October 6.

There, the board of governors will be asked to approve the rules of procedure for the appointment of a new director general, effectively firing the starting gun for the succession race.

The closing date for applications looks set to be December 31 2008, with ElBaradei’s successor to be appointed in June 2009 “at the latest”.

That appointment will then be put to next year’s general conference for final approval.

ElBaradei, who has served three terms as head of the IAEA since 1997, revealed in a memo earlier this month that he would be not be standing for a fourth term.

The 66-year-old Egyptian diplomat, whose contract expires on November 30 2009, was first appointed in December 1997 and won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work at the IAEA in 2005.

ElBaradei is only the watchdog’s fourth chief since it was set up in 1957.

The first was an American, Sterling Cole, who served from 1957 to 1961, and the next two director generals were both Swedes—Sigvard Eklund (1961 to 1981) and Hans Blix (1981 to 1997).

Under ElBaradei, the IAEA has verified the shutdown of nuclear weapons programmes of Libya and North Korea and is currently investigating allegations of illicit nuclear work by Iran and Syria.

But ElBaradei has come under fire, not least from the United States, for being too lenient with Iran.

Indeed, US officials have accused him of overstepping his mandate and undermining efforts to rein in Iran by suggesting its enrichment programme is irreversible and poses no imminent threat.

Israel, ElBaradei’s sharpest critic, has repeatedly called for his resignation.

But the Egyptian has warned that an attack on Iran would turn the Middle East into a fireball and any attack would simply harden Iran’s position in the long-running nuclear stand-off.

Furthermore, ElBaradei has said there is no “imminent risk” of proliferation given the current status of Iran’s nuclear programme.

And he has hit out at the United States and Israel for not sharing intelligence on, say, Syria, thereby making an IAEA investigation there more complicated.

The strong stance on nuclear disarmament of the countries of both the current candidates could make it hard for the United States to support them.

South African ambassador Minty, who has been Pretoria’s representative to the IAEA board since 1995, is well-known for his vocal advocacy of nuclear disarmament. He insists that all countries have a right to access nuclear technology.

Japan’s Amano has held senior positions related to nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament in the Japanese foreign ministry.

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