As the diplomatic standoff with Iran continues to heat up, Yukiya Amano of Japan today begins his tenure as the new Director General of the IAEA. In an interview with Reuters in February, Amano praised President Obama’s willingness to open dialogue with Iran. But dialogue has not gone well thus far, which prompted exiting Director General Mohamed ElBaradei to declare last Friday that the IAEA’s cooperation with Iran has reached a “dead end.” With these firm farewell words from ElBaradei, it is now Amano’s turn to navigate the technical and political minefield that is the Iranian nuclear program…
Mohamed ElBaradei has been a controversial figure due to his hostile relationship with the Bush administration. During his term, ElBaradei was criticized by Washington for politicizing the IAEA and taking a relatively soft stance on Iran. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice placed much of the blame for Iran’s nuclear developments on ElBaradei’s leadership of the Agency. She accused ElBaradei of “muddying the message” to Iran and stated that “The IAEA is not in the business of diplomacy. The IAEA is a technical agency…”
In contrast, Amano is known to be more of a technocrat than a diplomat. In his February interview, he stated: “The IAEA’s basic function is not political negotiation but implementing already agreed safeguards. Remarks by the director have political implications which, if made without properly assessing these implications, can be very dangerous.”
In fact, much of Amano’s support in his July 1st election was rooted in the belief that he would “depoliticize” the IAEA in the wake of ElBaradei’s leadership. The AP’s George Jahn noted in July that, “without publicly saying so, the U.S. and its allies had made clear before Tuesday’s voting that they favored Amano because they saw him as someone who would manage the IAEA without thrusting himself into the political fray.” In a similar vein, UPI explained that, “poor Asian and African nations regard him as too aligned with rich nations.” The developing nations largely supported South African candidate Abdul Minty, who had run for the position on a platform of moderate activism aimed at challenging the nuclear weapon states on disarmament issues.
Amano has tried to deflect concerns that he has a hidden, factional agenda. At a conference shortly after his election, Amano told reporters: “As a national from Japan, I will do my utmost to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. To do that, the solidarity of all the member states, countries of the north, from the south, from east and west, is absolutely necessary.”
Amano has also called for a wider understanding of the IAEA as not only a nuclear watchdog, but also a key facilitator of peaceful nuclear energy use. He explained that new perceptions of the IAEA as a “dual objective organization” would be “helpful in strengthening confidence in the agency.”
As for how Amano’s vision of a depoliticized IAEA and increased solidarity will play out in the context of the Iranian nuclear issue, NoH wishes the new Director General the best of luck. He is likely to need it.
Update: James Acton has published a more in-depth analysis of the IAEA’s change in leadership on Carnegie’s website