IAEA picks Jap envoy as new head

VIENNA: Veteran Japanese diplomat Yukiya Amano won the race Thursday to head the International Atomic Energy Agency, giving him a pivotal role in dealing with Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Amano, currently Tokyo's envoy to the IAEA, was chosen after six rounds of voting when he scraped together the requisite two-thirds majority with backing of 23 of the IAEA's 35 board members. Eleven voted against and one abstained.

Seen as the Western states' candidate to succeed outgoing director-general Mohamed ElBaradei, he had been running against South African ambassador Abdul Samad Minty, the perceived favourite among developing countries.

Under the rules of procedure, all 145 IAEA member states are to meet again on Friday where they will formally appoint Amano "by acclamation" and his appointment will need the final go-ahead at a general conference in September.

Speaking to reporters after the vote, Amano said that he was determined to prevent nuclear proliferation and saw a unified approach among IAEA members as crucial to achieving that goal.

"If I have the privilege of being elected as the new director general of the IAEA, I will do my utmost to enhance the welfare of the human beings and ensure sustainable development through the peaceful use of nuclear energy," he said.

"Also, as a national coming from Japan, I'll do my utmost to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. In order to do that, solidarity of all the member states countries from North, from South, from East and West is absolutely necessary." Amano was born on May 9, 1947, two years after the United States dropped its atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

He graduated from Tokyo University's law faculty before joining the foreign ministry in 1972 where he forged a reputation as an expert on disarmament and non-proliferation.

In 1993, Amano was named director of the ministry's nuclear energy division and then appointed director-general for arms control and scientific affairs before moving to the disarmament, nonproliferation and science department in 2004.

The Japanese diplomat also took part in negotiations for major arms control instruments, including the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) reviews, the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) and others agreements on ballistic missiles, biological and conventional weapons.

The veteran Egyptian ElBaradei steps down in November after three four-year terms as IAEA director general and Amano will inherit a very difficult job.

The IAEA recently released two new reports which showed it had made little progress in its probes into the alleged illicit nuclear activities in Iran and Syria.

Iran is defying the UN Security Council and amassing low-enriched uranium which the United States and its allies fear could play a crucial role in building a nuclear weapon.

In an interview with AFP earlier this year, Amano said he did not expect any quick breakthrough on Iran although he expressed hope that Barack Obama's election as US president would ease some of the tensions.

"The Iran dossier has been with IAEA for years. The roots of it date back decades. So, I'm not expecting a quick fix," he said in February.

"Perhaps now we have US administration and the new (IAEA) director general will be elected soon, this will make some difference, I hope." International efforts to negotiate an end to North Korea's nuclear weapons programmes have virtually collapsed and the Stalinist state conducted what it claimed was a nuclear test last month. Pyongyang further ratcheted up tensions on Thursday by firing two short-range missiles.

Amano will also have to persuade IAEA member countries to contribute more money to the agency.

During his term in office, ElBaradei, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 for his work at the IAEA, has been criticised for his comments and accused of politicising the agency.