Nuclear watchdog agency fails to elect new chief

Diplomats meeting in Vienna failed Friday to elect a new leader for the world's nuclear watchdog agency amid a hardening split between industrial powers and developing countries over how best to control atomic weapons and energy.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said its 35-member board could not muster the two-thirds majority needed to elect a director-general to replace Mohamed ElBaradei, who is retiring. The Egyptian ElBaradei, winner of the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize, put arms control in the international spotlight and led the agency during a crucial period when Iran and North Korea emerged as nuclear players.

The deadlock will delay by weeks the selection of a new IAEA chief.

The two-day special session pitted the U.S.-backed Japanese diplomat Yukiya Amano against Abdul Samad Minty of South Africa, who had the support of developing nations, in a contest that saw two different approaches to arms control.

The West would like to see the IAEA focus on narrow questions of whether countries such as Iran, Syria and North Korea are abiding by their treaty obligations. Developing nations' members want the agency to pressure nations possessing nuclear weapons, such as the United States, to disarm and help poor countries obtain nuclear technology.

"It was a disappointment also for us, and I suppose it was even a bigger one for Japan," a Western diplomat in Vienna said after Amano failed to win.

"The solidarity of the [developing] countries was somewhat stronger than expected," said the diplomat, who requested anonymity. "The polarization in the board seems to be greater than expected."

Many arms control experts and diplomats were unhappy with both candidates, who were seen as either lacking the organizational skills, temperament or charisma necessary for the post. An American official in Washington said the U.S. supported Amano out of loyalty to Japan rather than enthusiasm for the candidate.

The board will reopen the floor for the next four weeks and start the search anew for ElBaradei's replacement, said Taous Feroukhi, Algeria's envoy to the IAEA. "The slate of candidates is considered to have been wiped clean," she told reporters.

Unless the board finds a consensus candidate in the coming weeks, another vote probably will be held in May, officials said.

Amano, a mild-mannered technocrat considered sympathetic to the West's vision of the IAEA as a body that monitors the proliferation of nuclear technology, is said to be considering another run. Minty strongly suggested in a statement that he would drop out.

Diplomats at IAEA headquarters in Vienna said other potential contenders include Rogelio Pfirter, an Argentine who heads the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons; Milenko Skonic, Chile's envoy to the nuclear agency; former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo; Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere; and Tibor Toth, a Hungarian who heads the agency that enforces the nuclear test ban treaty.


Damianova is a special correspondent.

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