Who will succeed ElBaradei?

By Fred McGoldrick | April 21, 2009

As International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei prepares to step down at the end of November, the task of finding his replacement is heating up. Two candidates, Yukiya Amano of Japan and Abdul Samad Minty of South Africa, both IAEA ambassadors from their respective countries, failed to garner the necessary two-thirds majority in successive rounds of secret balloting by the IAEA’s 35-member Board of Governors in March. In accordance with the board’s procedure, the slate now has been wiped clean, and IAEA member states have until April 27 to submit new nominations.

Past elections

The process of selecting an IAEA director-general has never been simple or without controversy. Rather, it always has reflected the political interests of the member states and the era in which it took place. During the selection process for the first director-general, Washington ignored an understanding held by most of the IAEA’s member states that the new agency’s leader would be a scientist from a neutral country. Instead, the United States successfully pressed for the appointment of Sterling Cole, a U.S. congressman.

Cole frequently argued with the Board of Governors and, ironically, with Washington as well. When his term ended in 1961, the Soviet Union and the Asian and African states nominated a favored candidate. The United States and France, however, were successful in obtaining enough votes to appoint Sigvard Eklund of Sweden as director-general. Eklund was a physicist who had many years of experience at Swedish research institutes and in the Swedish nuclear industry. During his six terms, the IAEA developed its model safeguards agreement in order to implement its responsibilities under Article III of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

In 1981, when Eklund’s sixth term ended, the election of his successor proved to be prolonged and divisive. Six candidates were put forward by IAEA member states; eventually, the field was narrowed to Hans Haunschild, the head of the West German Federal Ministry of Research and Development, who was supported by the Western powers, and Domingo Siazon, the ambassador to the IAEA from the Philippines, who was favored by the developing countries. But the Soviet Union and its allies opposed both Haunschild and Siazon and blocked either from obtaining the necessary two-thirds majority. Eventually, Sweden nominated Hans Blix, a distinguished lawyer and former foreign minister.

The lengthy process went down to the wire, with Blix being approved on the last day of the IAEA General Conference in September 1981. Member states from the developing world were deeply disappointed that the board had failed to appoint one of their own to head the agency. During his 16-year tenure, Blix and the IAEA were criticized for their failure to uncover Saddam Hussein’s massive uranium enrichment and nuclear weapons program, which came to light only after the first Gulf War. In response, Blix led an effort to strengthen the IAEA’s safeguards system, culminating in the board’s adoption of the Additional Protocol, which expanded the IAEA’s right to information about, and access to, the nuclear programs of non-nuclear-weapon states.

Like Blix, ElBaradei also was a compromise candidate, and the board took five months before it finally agreed on his appointment. Six candidates were originally nominated to succeed Blix in 1997, but four withdrew. The remaining two candidates each failed to achieve the required two-thirds majority in five rounds of voting. Eventually ElBaradei and Kun Mo Chang, a professor and atomic energy commissioner in South Korea, were both nominated. Members of the board voted overwhelmingly for ElBaradei based on their familiarity with his qualifications and experience–he had served as the IAEA’s legal adviser and was assistant director-general of the Office of External Affairs prior to his appointment as IAEA head.

ElBaradei, who along with the agency won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2005, significantly elevated the IAEA’s international profile. He has been the agency’s most political and controversial leader. He alienated the United States by discrediting the Bush administration’s claim before the 2003 Iraq War about Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons program and by questioning the U.S. approach to the Iranian nuclear program. He condemned the Israeli attack on a secret Syrian nuclear facility, which the United States believed was a clandestine plutonium production reactor. He also has been outspoken on issues that go well beyond the agency’s mandate–such as the obligation of nuclear weapon states to disarm, missile defense, the Israeli nuclear program, and the Middle East peace process. In 2005, the Bush administration unsuccessfully sought to block his reappointment to his final four-year term.

Present challenges

The new IAEA chief will have many pressing tasks to deal with–from the dangers posed by the nuclear weapon programs of Iran and North Korea to the threat of nuclear terrorism. In addition, in recent years, an increasing number of countries have expressed interest in initiating peaceful nuclear power programs. If such growth does occur, the IAEA will have to safeguard these new facilities and assist these countries, many of whom have little or no experience in the nuclear field, in establishing effective safety and security infrastructures.

Making the situation worse, the IAEA faces a funding crisis. A recent report recommends that the IAEA assume additional responsibilities and perhaps double its budget by 2020. An expanded IAEA will be necessary to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and improve the security of nuclear materials even as nuclear power expands internationally. But, many years of zero growth budgets have significantly reduced the IAEA’s capabilities, and key responsibilities such as nuclear safety and security are funded largely on a voluntary basis by member states, the amount of which is not predictable.

New candidates

Since the failure of the March vote, Japan has renominated Amano for IAEA director-general. In addition, several new candidates have emerged. Malaysia has nominated Noramly Muslim, the chairman of its Atomic Energy Licensing Board. Slovenia has put forth the name of Ernest Petric, currently a constitutional court judge and his country’s former ambassador to the IAEA; Spain has nominated Luis Echavarri, the head of the Nuclear Energy Agency. Other possible candidates include Rogelio Pfirter of Argentina, the head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and Milenko Skoknic, Chile’s IAEA ambassador. It’s impossible to predict who will emerge as the winning candidate–whether it will be one of those identified above or an unexpected surprise candidate. Regardless, the board will have to agree on the appointment before the adjournment of the IAEA General Conference on September 18.

The next director-general, no matter who he or she may be, will have to possess certain qualifications and skills. Some will argue that a strong scientific or technical background is both desirable and necessary. While such a resume undoubtedly could be useful, other skills will be more important. For example, the next director-general will need strong administrative and supervisory capabilities to run a range of safeguards, physical protection, nuclear safety, and budgetary programs and to ensure that these programs are carried out as efficiently as possible.

The next IAEA head also will have to deal with the divergent political interests of the agency’s member states. While the Western countries view the IAEA’s most important function as preventing proliferation, many developing countries want more attention and resources spent promoting the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. They point out that a fundamental objective of the IAEA is to “seek to accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy to peace, health, and prosperity throughout the world.” Developing countries believe that the IAEA needs to restore a proper balance between its safeguards and its technical-assistance functions.

Some member states, notably those in Europe, are skeptics or opponents of nuclear energy. Others believe that a rapid expansion of nuclear power is necessary to meet global energy needs and reduce carbon emissions. Balancing all of these interests will demand a director-general with considerable political talents. Additionally, he or she will also have to exhibit the necessary diplomatic skills and toughness to negotiate with countries such as Iran to ensure that the agency is able to carry out its safeguard responsibilities effectively and in accordance with U.N. Security Council mandates.

And above all, the next director-general will need a clear vision for the future of the agency, a strong sense of priorities, and the determination to convince member states to support substantially increasing its resources to meet the pressing demands it will face in the future.

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