VIENNA – It is a testament to Yukiya Amano’s success as head of the U.N. atomic agency that, unlike his appointment in 2009, securing a second term was a formality.
Succeeding Nobel Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei, the Japanese career diplomat had big shoes to fill and in 2009 his election divided member states of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
He was chosen then only after six rounds of voting when he scraped together the backing of 23 of the 35 IAEA board members. Many countries, particularly from the developing world, backed a rival South African candidate.
On Wednesday it could not have been more different, with the board approving another four-year term by consensus, making a vote unnecessary.
In the eyes of many developing countries in 2009, Amano’s few good points included his recognized expertise in nuclear matters and the fact that he came from the only country to have been bombed with a nuclear device.
But on the negative side, succeeding the Egyptian ElBaradei, who had frequently clashed with Washington, most notably over Iraq, he was seen as a potential Western puppet bent on eroding the IAEA’s impartiality.
This impression was heightened by the release by WikiLeaks of 2009 U.S. diplomatic cables saying Amano was “solidly in the U.S. court on every key strategic decision, from high-level personnel appointments to the handling of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program.”
But, according to Mark Hibbs, a seasoned IAEA watcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, since 2009 Amano has managed to soothe developing countries’ concerns, while also doing exactly the job that Western nations wanted.
“He not only succeeded in the sense that he carried out the agenda which his supported countries on the board wanted him to do, but at the same time he also overcame the challenge of facing angry and disappointed, disgruntled developing countries,” Hibbs said.
This is despite the challenge of responding to the Fukushima disaster in 2011, the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl in 1986, and also dealing with the tricky Iran file.
Under Amano, the IAEA has continued to conduct regular inspections on Iran’s nuclear facilities and its quarterly reports regularly outline Tehran’s continued advances — in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
In addition, Amano controversially published in November 2011 a report analyzing all the information the IAEA has — much of it from spy agencies — on Iran’s alleged efforts to develop nuclear weapons.
The report judged the evidence to be “overall, credible,” saying that it painted a picture that at least until 2003, and possibly since, Iran “carried out activities that are relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.”
Since much of the information reportedly comes from Western and Israeli intelligence, Amano ran the risk of further alienating member states of the IAEA that were already uneasy about his appointment.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said at the time it was “gravely disappointed and bewildered” and said the report was “unbalanced, unprofessional and prepared with political motivation and under political pressure by mostly the United States.” China was also said to be less than happy.
Iran in particular was incensed, calling the IAEA’s claims “baseless” and later accusing the agency of being infiltrated by “saboteurs” and “terrorists.”
But Amano’s gamble paid off, and instead of prompting a revolt by IAEA members, Iran has remained alone in the agency’s boardroom.
“Amano succeeded in continuing a process of isolating Iran in the boardroom. Iran has a very small number of allies . . . and Amano has succeeded in preventing Iran from mobilizing the NAM (Non-Aligned Movement) in Vienna. That is a singular achievement,” Hibbs said.