IAEA: Keeping the Balance

Can the Atomic Energey Agency fill a huge pair of shoes?

El Baradei, Nobel Laureate and current Director General of the IAEA | Photo: Courtesy of IAEA

A new era is dawning upon the International Atomic Energy Agency as it awaits its new Director General to replace Nobel Laureate Mohammed El Baradei who has been the face of the nuclear agency for nearly a decade.

El Baradei led the Agency through turbulent times, avoiding serious confrontations and managing – more or less – to maintain the balance of the powers within the Board of Governors, the Agency’s decision-making body.

But El Baradei has served notice: He does not intend to stand for re-election after his fourth term ends in November.

The question of succession comes at a particularly crucial time. North Korea is forging ahead with plans to expand its nuclear program (power definitely, but also possibly weapons), and Iran is producing more and more of the material that could eventually (admittedly with massive further enrichment) be used as the fissile core of nuclear arms. Syria, meanwhile, is shrugging off evidence that appears to back up U.S. allegations of secret strivings to develop an atomic program, with possible weapons applications.

Even under El Baradei, whose voice carried unusual clout within the UN system, the Agency has seemed powerless to make these three nations toe the line in terms of transparency.  The question is, does the candidate favored to succeed him have big enough feet to fill his shoes?

Front-runner Yukiya Amano of Japan is well-versed in both diplomacy and nuclear affairs, as a senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official who now heads his country’s delegation to the IAEA. But while El Baradei was confrontational when needed, Amano is low-key and conciliatory to the point where he could have trouble mobilizing the IAEA’s 35-nation decision-making board – a body that is often rancorously split on key issues along North-South lines.

That ideological split has already slowed the search for a new chief at a time when the organization tasked with keeping nuclear arms away from rogue states needs a firm hand at the tiller. Even before IAEA leadership became an issue, probes that should have taken place in Iran and Syria ground to a standstill. With no enforcing powers, the Agency was left to ask for cooperation – and was refused in both cases.

Last year, Iran declared closed an investigation into allegations that it was trying to make nuclear weapons, and it continues to expand its enrichment activities despite UN Security Council sanctions. Syria repeatedly turns down requests for onsite IAEA visits to locations suspected of sheltering undeclared atomic activities, including an alleged plutonium-producing reactor which was under construction until it was bombed by Israeli warplanes.

The Agency is not without clout: It’s board referred Iran to the Security Council three years ago for breaching the Nonproliferation Treaty, in a vote supported by more than two-thirds of its members. But such near unity has been rare since.

Now elected to limited board terms, several nonaligned nations, led by Cuba, Venezuela and others at odds with the U.S. and its allies, argue that Iran has a right to uranium enrichment to generate nuclear fuel. They dismiss arguments that Tehran could quickly retool its program to create the fissile core of warheads, depicting such a position as a cover for attempts to keep nuclear technology in the hands of the rich countries. Indeed, there is no hard evidence yet for any attempt on the part of Tehran to embark on the huge technological challenge of enriching nuclear material to the level required for a weapons program.  Like any other UN country, Iran has a right to enrichment for peaceful nuclear purposes, and it insists that this is all it wants to do. In addition to support from developing countries, it often gets tacit support from Russia and China – both permanent Security Council members who nonetheless court Iran and Syria for strategic and economic reasons.

Such fissures not only call into question whether a consensus candidate can be found once El Baradei steps down in November, they also raise the issue of whether anyone at the IAEA helm can exert meaningful new leverage on Tehran and Damascus.

At a minimum level, the IAEA can be the world’s impartial “eyes and ears”, overseeing any agreement reached between the U.S. and Tehran and Damascus. In the case of Tehran for instance, its inspectors could verify that the Islamic Republic is honoring any agreement not to expand its uranium enrichment activities.

More ideally, the board could empower the Agency by giving it more authority, agreeing to a special inspection in the case of Syria that Damascus would find politically difficult to refuse. But such moves are unlikely as long as the North-South split persists.

While Amano received 20 votes in a recent straw poll among the Agency board to make him the front-runner, the runner-up, Abdul Samad Minty of South Africa, collected 11 ballots – a split vote that reflected the same North-South divisions that were apparent when the two men first faced off in March.

Amano is generally favored by Western nations, while Minty has the support of the developing countries, a split that led to the deadlock in March. “We are probably once again exactly where we were – two groups,” said Ernest Petric of Slovenia, who failed to collect any votes, after the most recent balloting.

A new vote is set for Jul. 2; but with the splits continuing, it too could fail to give any candidate the two-thirds majority needed to win. Ironically, it is precisely the continued deadlock, however, that could solve the problem of finding the feet for the shoes, at least for a while. If no candidate is chosen before El Baradei is slated to step down in November, he could stay on for another year. This would maintain the status quo, but also reinforce the fragile nature of the Agency’s real powers.

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