An ideological split at International Atomic Energy Agency is slowing the search for a new chief at a time the organization tasked with keeping nuclear arms away from rogue states needs a firm hand at the rudder.
The longer the delay, the greater the fear that Iran, and possibly Syria, could forge ahead with allegedly illicit nuclear activities with more impunity.
For months, the IAEA’s hands have been tied in its probes of the two nations’ nuclear programs as internal bickering and the agency’s weak mandate prevent it from taking effective action. The hunt is on for a leader who can help unite the fractious 35-nation board for joint decisions on crucial nonproliferation issues.
But the same North-South divisions that have hobbled the IAEA’s investigation of Iran and Syria are encumbering the search for a successor to Mohamed ElBaradei, who steps down as director general in November. The developed world believes tough action is needed to block rogue nations from acquiring nuclear weapons; emerging economies argue that countries like Iran and Syria have a right to develop nuclear programs to help them catch up with the West.
That debate has clouded the process of picking a new leader: Six rounds over two days last week left the ballot split between Japan’s Yukiya Amano, a low-key administrator favored by the US and other rich nations, and Abdul Samad Minty, a South African backed by developing countries.
The agency on Monday formally relaunched the leadership race, throwing it open to a new round of nominations from the 35 IAEA board member nations. But any new balloting is at least weeks away, with no guarantee of ending the impasse _ and ElBaradei will increasingly be viewed as a lame-duck leader as he nears the end of his term.
The impression of a rudderless IAEA could further embolden both Iran and Syria.
Most experts agree that Iran recently amassed enough enriched uranium to build a bomb. That adds urgency to efforts to persuade Tehran to give up enrichment. U.S. President Barack Obama is reaching out to Iran and Syria in an effort to break the nuclear impasse: it’s a crucial time calling for strong IAEA leadership to support American diplomatic efforts with Tehran and Damascus.
Even before IAEA leadership became an issue, probes of both countries ground to a standstill. With no enforcing powers, the agency was left to ask for cooperation _ refused in both cases.
Iran last year declared an investigation of allegations that it tried to make nuclear weapons closed and 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 under construction until it was bombed by Israeli warplanes.
Israeli officials have repeatedly suggested Tehran’s nuclear facilities could also be hit if the international community fails to persuade it to stop its nuclear activities.
A weak IAEA could increase support for the strike option, providing grist for hawks in Benjamin Netanyahu’s new hard-line government.
“Israel, in bombing the Syrian reactor proved ... that it would never tolerate a nuclear weapon in the hands of a country that calls for Israel’s destruction,” said Israeli analyst Ronen Bergman, author of “The Secret War with Iran.”
The agency is not without clout. Its 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.
Once elected to limited board terms, 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 them as a cover for attempts to keep nuclear technology in the hands of the rich countries.
Like any country, Iran has a right to enrichment for peaceful nuclear purposes _ and it insists that is all it wants to do. Besides 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 ElBaradei steps down in November. They also raise the issue of whether anyone at the IAEA helm can exert meaningful new agency leverage on Tehran and Damascus.
At the minimum, the IAEA can be the 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, some argue, 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.
For now, “the agency can ask questions and declare that questions have not been answered and (try to) send inspectors,” said Graham Allison, director of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and assistant secretary of defense under President Bill Clinton. “But if a country wants to stiff the agency, it can.”
David Albright, whose Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security tracks suspected secret proliferators, suggested the agency could do nothing more on swaying Iran.
“The IAEA doesn’t have a place at the table any more,” he said. “It’s up to the US now to strengthen its role on Iran.
Still, he said an exceptional candidate with charisma and vision could support Washington in its outreach.
“You’d look to a candidate just like we look to Obama in the United States to get beyond the zero sum game.”
George Jahn has covered nuclear and related security and tactical issues since 2002.