VIENNA – Argentina’s Rafael Grossi was elected on Tuesday to head the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, which is tasked in particular with monitoring the implementation of the increasingly shaky Iran nuclear deal.
Grossi beat Romanian diplomat Cornel Feruta to become director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) following the death of the former head, Japan’s Yukiya Amano in July.
The election of Grossi, Argentina’s ambassador to the IAEA, comes at a critical time for the Vienna-based agency as Iran is decreasing its commitments under the landmark 2015 deal.
U.S. President Donald Trump last year withdrew from the agreement and proceeded to re-introduce sanctions, leaving Iran to press the remaining signatories to hold up economic benefits in return for its nuclear program cutbacks.
Grossi received 24 votes to Feruta’s 10 from the IAEA’s 35-member Board of Governors in the third official round of voting, reaching the two-thirds majority needed to become the new director general.
Grossi, who becomes the first IAEA head from Latin America and is believed to have had the backing of the U.S., said he was “delighted.”
“The work of the agency is of the essence for international peace and security. This is clear for all of us,” he told reporters after his election.
On monitoring Iran’s nuclear activities, he said he would follow the mandate the IAEA member states have given him “in close consultation with those involved,” adding the issue was of “the greatest concern for all.”
Grossi will be appointed by board meeting, open to all of the IAEA’s 171 member states, on Wednesday, after which a general conference is expected to approve the decision. The appointment is for a term of four years.
Feruta had been the organization’s acting director general since the death of Amano, who had led the agency since 2009. He died at age 72.
Grossi has said he wants to be “an honest broker for all” without a “hidden agenda.”
“My approach with Iran will be very firm but very fair,” the 58-year-old said in a September interview.
Grossi, a seasoned diplomat, became Argentina’s permanent representative to the United Nations in Vienna in 2013.
Prior to that he was at the IAEA from 2010, latterly as the assistant director general for policy and chief of cabinet.
Both Grossi and Feruta had been lobbying strongly for the post with two other contenders — Lassina Zerbo of Burkina Faso and Marta Ziakova of Slovakia — dropping out earlier in the race.
“I think Grossi’s style would be to shake things up a little more,” one diplomat said ahead of this week’s voting, describing the Argentinian as hard-working and engaged.
“You can’t fault his work ethic,” the diplomat added.
The IAEA is tasked with monitoring Iran’s nuclear activities to ensure they abide by the terms of the 2015 deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Tensions have been escalating between Iran and the United States since May last year when Trump pulled out of the nuclear accord and began reimposing sanctions.
The remaining partners in the deal with Iran are Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia.
The European parties have repeatedly said they are committed to saving the accord, but their efforts have so far borne little fruit.
Tehran has already hit back three times with countermeasures in response to the U.S. withdrawal from the deal.
On July 1, Iran said it had increased its stockpile of enriched uranium to beyond a 300-kilogram maximum set by the deal, and a week later it announced it had exceeded a 3.67 percent cap on the purity of its uranium stocks.
In its latest move it fired up advanced centrifuges to boost its enriched uranium stockpiles on Sept. 7.