UN nuclear chief faces Iran challenge in third term
VIENNA - The head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, Mohamed ElBaradei, has won the support of Washington but now faces the greater challenge of dealing with an Iranian atomic program that many suspect is aimed at building weapons.
For over a year, the United States tried to oust the 62-year-old Egyptian director-general of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), but officially gave up its campaign against him on Thursday when the State Department said it would back the lawyer and veteran diplomat.
This means he has the unanimous support of the IAEA's 35-nation board of governors, which meets next week to approve his reappointment for a third term and discuss the latest report on the agency's investigation of Iran's nuclear program.
Tackling Iran may be tougher than dealing with a U.S. administration that has repeatedly clashed with the United Nations -- first over the U.N.'s refusal to back U.S. claims that pre-war Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction and later about Tehran's ambiguous nuclear ambitions.
Some U.S. officials have accused ElBaradei of being soft on Iran and undermining the U.S. push to refer Tehran to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions. But some European diplomats and arms experts say he is anything but soft.
"Mohamed has always favored a diplomatic solution with Iran -- that is, an agreement between the European Union and Iran," said Gary Samore, an arms control expert at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
ElBaradei has not found any hard proof that Iran wants nuclear weapons as Washington insists, but Samore said there are too many open questions about Iran's possible nuclear weapons capability for the IAEA to end its investigation soon.
"If he closes the file now, the Iranians will say that there is no longer any reason to suspend their uranium enrichment program and I don't think Mohamed's going to do anything like that," said Samore, an adviser to former U.S. President Bill Clinton.
The EU's three biggest powers -- France, Britain and Germany -- share U.S. suspicions that Iran wants nuclear weapons and are determined to prevent Tehran from mastering the science of uranium enrichment, a process of purifying uranium for use as fuel in nuclear power plants or weapons.
Iran, which says its nuclear plans are peaceful, has frozen its enrichment program temporarily, but has rejected the EU trio's offer of U.S.-backed incentives if it terminates and dismantles all its enrichment-related facilities.
Tehran has said it would only maintain the suspension until the end of July, when the Europeans have promised to deliver a detailed offer of incentives for the Islamic republic.
ElBaradei has called for a global moratorium on uranium enrichment, but few countries with the technology -- including both the United States and Iran -- support this idea. Iran says enrichment is a sovereign right it will never abandon.
The IAEA board will hear few new things about Iran next week but may hear how Pakistan has helped the probe, diplomats said.
A preliminary analysis of Pakistani components for enrichment centrifuges identical to ones Iran purchased on the black market appear to back Tehran's assertion that traces of bomb-grade uranium were the result of contamination, Vienna officials familiar with the IAEA investigation of Iran said.
"Iran's assertions that it did not produce this enriched uranium (itself) appear to be truthful," an official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
However, the analysis of the centrifuge parts that Islamabad recently provided to the IAEA has not removed all doubts about the origin of uranium traces found in Iran, Western diplomats familiar with the investigation said.
"Many questions have been answered, but some serious questions about contamination and Iran's nuclear program overall remain," one diplomat said.