The International Atomic Energy Agency will today choose between a Japanese and South African in a vote for a new leader to tackle the risks of nuclear proliferation and push harder for peaceful uses of the atom.
IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei steps down in November after three terms spanning 12 years and delegates on the Board of Governors are anxious to have a new chief by June to ensure a smooth transition, Reuters reports.
The two front-runners are Yukiya Amano, 61, a low-key diplomat steeped in nuclear energy and non-proliferation affairs and the more charismatic Abdul Minty, 69, a veteran disarmament negotiator and former anti-apartheid activist.
Amano has a solid lead but it is possible neither man will score the two-thirds majority required in the IAEA’s 35-nation Board to be able to take over the helm of the UN watchdog. If that happens, the race will be thrown open to new candidates.
Apart from trying to balance the demands of richer and poorer nations and coping on a meagre budget, the new IAEA chief will have to come to grips with stalled investigations into suspect nuclear work in Iran and Syria, probes which have drawn the IAEA into the international spotlight.
The new director may benefit from new US diplomatic efforts under President Barack Obama to re-establish contacts with these countries.
Diplomats said neither Minty nor Amano were ideal candidates bridging divisions between developed and developing nations.
“The two contenders in the fray do not seem to inspire many,” TP Sreenivasan, former Indian ambassador to the IAEA, wrote in a column on Indian media website Rediff. “There is disappointment that such a high-profile agency with great potential for peace and development has not attracted the enormous talent available worldwide.”
A quiet bandwagon phenomenon over the past few weeks appeared to be benefiting Amano, making an inconclusive result less likely than before, some diplomats on the Board said.
But uncertainty lingered due to fence-sitting by some key delegations and the fact the vote will be a secret ballot.
The election at IAEA headquarters in Vienna could run into tomorrow with as many as five rounds of voting.
ElBaradei, an Egyptian, shared the 2005 Nobel peace prize with the agency, but clashed with the former Bush administration over what he saw as antagonistic policy towards Iraq and Iran.
Amano, favoured largely by industrialized states, was seen by Western missions as a good choice to “depoliticise” the IAEA.
Diplomats said Amano was 6-10 votes ahead of Minty, favoured largely by developing nations who regard the Japanese as being a tool of Western powers. Minty has stressed South Africa’s nuclear technology credentials and preference for consensus-building.
If the election stalls, there is the possibility of a compromise candidate entering the race in the same way that ElBaradei did in 1997.
Names bandied about privately have included Luis Echavarri, Spanish head of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s nuclear energy arm, and Rogelio Pfirter, Argentinian head of the Hague-based agency enforcing the global chemical weapons ban.
Former Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo, nuclear test ban treaty agency chief Tibor Toth, and