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Nuclear Politics in Vienna

12:32 PM, Apr 30, 2009 • By JAMIE FLY
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In the coming months, with little fanfare, the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna will select a new Director General for the organization. This person will play an integral role in international efforts to curtail the nuclear weapons ambitions of countries such as Iran. Current IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei's term ends at the end of 2009 and during several rounds of voting by the IAEA's Board of Governors last month, neither of the two leading candidates -- Japan's Yukiya Amano and South Africa's Abdul Minty -- were able to muster enough support. The Obama administration reportedly favored Amano in the first round of voting. It should have been an easy choice because South Africa -- and Minty personally -- has a long history of opposing U.S. and Western positions in international fora. Given the deadlock in March, the field has now widened, with Spanish, Slovenian, and Belgian candidates joining the race. The next round of voting will take place in June.

This may all seem like a meaningless fight to head an obscure UN agency's bureaucracy, but the United States has much at stake in who wins. During his three terms in office since 1997, ElBaradei has been an outspoken opponent of many U.S. policies, including the invasion of Iraq. After he and the IAEA won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005, ElBaradei's practice of opining on matters outside the IAEA's ambit only increased. In an interview several weeks ago with Roger Cohen of the New York Times, ElBaradei referred twice to Vice President Cheney as "Darth Vader," described U.S. policy toward Iran under the Bush administration as "a combination of ignorance and arrogance," and argued that the United States needed to talk to Iran with "every grievance on the table."

What have been ElBaradei's achievements other than pleasing the Nobel Committee? North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) under his watch, and two weeks ago the Hermit kingdom again kicked out IAEA inspectors from its nuclear facility at Yongbyon and announced it was restarting its nuclear program. The IAEA's investigation into Iran's pre-2003 covert nuclear weapons program has essentially stalled and instead of accurately reporting Iran's refusal to cooperate, ElBaradei has consistently been an advocate for a political solution rather than pressing the Iranians. When Syria was discovered to be building a covert nuclear reactor with North Korean assistance in violation of its NPT commitments, instead of expressing concern about Syria's actions, ElBaradei questioned the evidence and criticized the United States and Israel for not informing the IAEA about the reactor before Israel destroyed it in September 2007.

Why care about who replaces ElBaradei? One key reason is that if the Obama administration, in its fervor to engage Iran, decides to allow Iran to retain a limited nuclear program under enhanced international scrutiny, it will be the IAEA that will be called upon to ensure that Iran's activities remain peaceful. It is unclear if the Obama administration will go down this slippery slope to an Iran with nuclear weapons, but if it does, the only thing standing between the civilized world and a nuclear-armed Iran will be the IAEA unless the United States or Israel takes military action. It is thus essential that the next IAEA Director General not be a shill for Iran but be willing to carry out the IAEA's mission even when it upsets Iran and its allies on the Agency's board.

During his April 5 speech in Prague, President Obama called terrorist acquisition of a nuclear weapon "the most immediate and extreme threat to global security." The Obama administration has until now supported Amano only quietly in Vienna, adopting the State Department's traditional reluctance to speak forcefully in support of a candidate for an international position (with the convoluted logic that if the United States is vocal, all of America's enemies will support someone else -- as if they would support our preferred candidate anyway). The bureaucrats at State should heed the President's sense of urgency about the threat of nuclear proliferation and make every effort to ensure that Amano or another suitable candidate is elected Director General of the IAEA. Otherwise, we will end up with another ElBaradei clone who will spend the next four years criticizing U.S. policy and supporting the serial violators of the NPT rather than holding them accountable.