Later this month, the world's foremost nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), is expected to affirm its choice of Yukiya Amano as its new director general, to succeed Mohammed el Baradei, in November.
The occasion will mark the first changing of the guard in a dozen years at the Vienna-based agency, and comes at a critical juncture for the nuclear industry, which is gearing up for an expected worldwide renaissance of civilian atomic power amid continuing threats of nuclear arms proliferation. Mr Amano, the Japanese ambassador to the international organisation in the Austrian capital, will be Japan's first IAEA chief, despite the strength of his home country's civilian nuclear sector and its historically unique position as the only country ever to have suffered a nuclear attack.
In senior government posts in his home country related to nuclear arms control and science, he has gained extensive experience in nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation and energy policy. He also has a reputation as a "quiet diplomat", more interested in technical performance than ruffling political feathers. Yet Mr Amano was far from a unanimous choice to lead the IAEA. In July, it took the agency's 35-nation government board several rounds of voting to muster the two-thirds majority required for the election of a new director general, and it only managed that after one member agreed to abstain.
In eventually winning the vote, Mr Amano narrowly defeated South Africa's Abdul Minty, whose candidacy had mainly been supported by developing countries. Mr Amano was the choice of most western nuclear nations, including the US. "I have received the support from 23 countries, which is the necessary number of votes to be selected as the next director general of the IAEA. I am very pleased for this support," Mr Amano said after the vote. "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 state countries from north, from south, from east and west is absolutely necessary." That invites the question of whether Mr Amano will be able to unify a divided IAEA membership to back whatever strategies he adopts to identify and defuse threats of nuclear weapons proliferation. Besides inheriting the politically sensitive nuclear dossiers of Iran, North Korea and Syria, Mr Amano will have to balance the often conflicting demands of developing nations for access to nuclear power against western powers' concerns over keeping nuclear technology out of hostile hands.
If the IAEA is to do its work effectively, its new chief will also have to persuade member countries struggling to cope with the financial and economic crisis to contribute more money to its budget. Mr Amano will also need to calm critics who charge that the IAEA has become too politicised. That could be the most troublesome part of the legacy bequeathed by Mr el Baradei, who in 2005 shared the Nobel Peace Prize with the agency he still heads. The Norwegian Nobel Committee said the award honoured efforts to prevent nuclear energy from being used for military purposes while ensuring it remained available for peaceful use in the safest possible way.
But in pursuing those goals, Mr el Baradei, who has never been shy of using his position at the IAEA to air his personal views on politically charged issues from world hunger to Israel's treatment of Palestinians, may have inflamed some political leaders he might have done better to assuage. A few years back, Mr el Baradei annoyed the then US president George W Bush by aggressively defending the IAEA's finding of no evidence that Saddam Hussein's regime had restarted its nuclear weapons development programme. In 2003, ignoring the agency's advice, the US invaded Iraq.
Now, the IAEA finds itself in a strikingly similar controversy over Iran. Just this month, France accused the IAEA of withholding evidence that could help the international community determine whether Iran is trying to build an atomic bomb, after Mr el Baradei said talk of an Iranian bomb had been "hyped". The French claim came after Israeli allegations that the agency had held back key parts of its recent report on Tehran's nuclear plans. Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister, said the missing information was in the report's unpublished annexes.
"Specifically, in the annexes, there are elements which enable us to ask questions about the reality of an atomic bomb. There are issues of warheads, of transport," Mr Kouchner said. "I am not exaggerating. It is clear on reading the IAEA documents that not a single question has been answered." Another French official told Agence France-Presse that the IAEA's report had been watered down, and that the agency's inspectors had gathered "a whole series of pieces of evidence" regarding Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons. That was despite the report stating that Iraq had barred inspectors from workshops where it could be assembling nuclear missiles and had failed to share information about its testing of high explosives and multiple detonators.
"There remain a number of outstanding issues which give rise to concerns, and which need to be clarified to exclude the existence of possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear programme," the IAEA wrote. But the French reaction is noteworthy if only because Paris seldom sides with Israel. The Jewish state is not a member of the IAEA because it has not signed the agency-administered nuclear non-proliferation treaty, but it has long been among the toughest critics of Mr el Baradei. In 2007, it called for his removal as the agency's head.
But it was on Mr el Baradei's watch in 2004 that the IAEA found Iran to be non-compliant with international nuclear proliferation safeguards and reported its findings to the UN. That was after the agency had been criticised for doing little to curb the weapons programme that Libya eventually surrendered, after the US invasion of Iraq. Recently, Mr el Baradei has said his "gut feeling" was that Tehran was aiming to develop atomic weapons, implying he lacked proof.
It will be interesting to see what Mr Amano makes of all this. So far, he has commented diplomatically that he has not yet seen the evidence. Another issue the incoming IAEA chief will have to face is the growing resentment of developed nations at strict regulation of their access to nuclear power, which many need because they are desperately short of electricity. Developing countries and some other nations feel a sense of unfairness about the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, because the five nuclear powers the US, Britain, France, Russia and China are exempt from such restrictions and yet have taken few steps towards nuclear disarmament.
These issues are of direct relevance to the UAE, which is planning to develop the Arab world's first civilian nuclear power programme while, of necessity, maintaining historic trade ties with Iran, its close neighbour. Throughout the planning of its nuclear programme, the UAE has worked closely with the IAEA and actively sought its advice. It has not railed against the IAEA's rules for peaceful nuclear development but rather has embraced them, for instance by pledging to forgo activities such as uranium enrichment that could be linked to a weapons programme.
And experts at the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research say the threat of regional nuclear arms proliferation is a danger to the country. That should neatly align the UAE's position with the principles endorsed by Mr Amano, suggesting the new IAEA chief could become a powerful ally. The UAE, on the verge of signing a landmark agreement with the US on peaceful nuclear trade and technology transfer, and of launching its programme with help from US experts, faces lingering resistance to its nuclear ambitions from some US politicians. They remain sceptical that the nation could prevent the transfer of sensitive technology to Iran.
If anything should happen to inflame US misgivings, Mr Amano's soft-pedal diplomacy could prove invaluable. Other developing nations lining up to join the nuclear club could come to realise that they need a "quiet diplomat" in their corner. firstname.lastname@example.org