World's nuclear watchdog needs a strong and wily chief

Promoting peaceful atomic energy while keeping nuclear weapons in check will require a strong International Atomic Energy Agency. Its current struggle to pick a new director shows how high the stakes are.

The mantle is passing at the world's nuclear watchdog. It is not yet clear to whom, but one thing is certain: the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will need strong leadership to navigate the political waters of an eventual solution to the Iranian crisis. It is the IAEA that will be called to monitor a settlement.

The IAEA failed last week in a first effort to elect a new chief. The top candidate, mild-mannered Japanese ambassador Yukiya Amano, fell just a vote shy in a secret balloting.

Some nations, among them Russia and China according to diplomats, worried that the agency – charged with monitoring Iran's nuclear work – could become a rubber-stamp for US policy if led by a mainstream American ally. The second candidate, Abdul Samad Minty from South Africa, was seen as too confrontational.

The reign of current IAEA director general Mohamed ElBaradei has been somewhat stormy. The unassuming Egyptian defied the United States over the Iraq war and has been a thorn in Washington's side over Iran. Mr. ElBaradei, who writes the agency's verification reports, has refused to certify the US claim that Iran seeks nuclear weapons. He says the "jury is still out" on what the Islamic Republic's intentions are.

ElBaradei is stepping down in December. The change comes at an epochal time. The jury may be out on Iran's intentions but it is certain to achieve this year the strategic capability to make enough enriched uranium to embark on making atom bombs, if it so wishes. Iran insists it only seeks to make fuel for nuclear power. The US does not believe this. Israel considers the Iranian nuclear program, and accompanying missile capabilities, as a threat to its very existence.

The IAEA's investigation of Iran's nuclear program has stalled, despite all the issues that have been clarified in the past six years, and there are many. The remaining question is the most important: What are the possible military dimensions of Iran's atomic work? The IAEA and the Iranians have not had working meetings on this matter since last summer. The Iranians dismiss the so-called alleged studies (documents the US says show weaponization work), as forgeries. The investigation is on hold and waiting for new injection from the engagement diplomacy of President Obama.

"Iran's participation will depend on some kind of political deal," a diplomat close to the IAEA told me.

But the stalemate, and the frustrations of the IAEA's effort since 2003 to unravel the meaning of Iran's nuclear program, do not call into question the agency's essential role.

Several US officials have said that despite past problems, despite the Bush administration's disputes with ElBaradei, the IAEA remains the world's "eyes and ears." One official said: "The window we have into Iran's nuclear program is based on IAEA inspections. You can't replace the eyewitness assessment of experts who are actually in the facility."

Thus, the election of a new director general is significant. A new round of soliciting candidates has begun. Contenders may now include Spaniard Luis Echavarri, who heads the nuclear energy arm at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and even former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, who chaired a commission of eminent persons who reported on the future of the IAEA. If this round fails, a staff member from the IAEA could emerge, as ElBaradei did in 1997 when he was assistant director general for external relations.

The bottom line is that the integrity of the IAEA as an independent voice, an ongoing concern of ElBaradei's, has to be maintained. A diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis, if one can be reached, will depend on the agency's verification of Iran's atomic program. This could involve making sure that uranium enrichment does not go beyond bounds set or guaranteeing that there is no enrichment work within the vast Islamic state. In any case, IAEA inspectors will be needed on the ground.

To do effective verification, the agency will require a larger budget and more help, such as increased intelligence information from member countries. It will also undoubtedly seek an expanded mandate to carry out more aggressive investigations. With all this in play, the agency must have a strong and wily director general. His effectiveness will hinge on winning trust from the two sides of the non-proliferation coin – developing nations wanting atomic power and Western states demanding guarantees against the spread of nuclear weapons.

Michael Adler is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

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