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VIENNA (Reuters) - Iran should be treated with respect through fruitful dialogue and this could strengthen the U.N. nuclear watchdog, a veteran Japanese diplomat leading the race to become the agency's next director says.
In an interview with Reuters, Yukiya Amano praised new U.S. President Barack Obama's readiness to sit down and talk to Iran over its disputed nuclear ambitions, after years of unproductive isolation policy by predecessor George W. Bush.
"We don't have an effective framework of dialogue so far. "We need to carefully maintain a channel of dialogue. Iran is an important country. You must deal with it with respect and dignity," said Amano, Japanese ambassador to the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency.
"Progress in the political dialogue will help the IAEA implement safeguards," he said.
Iran curbed U.N. inspectors' access in response to U.N. sanctions it calls an unjust move to deny a proud civilization the benefits of civilian nuclear energy. It is also stonewalling an IAEA probe into alleged military dimensions to the program.
Amano said incumbent IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei's Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 was "a great achievement, a tangible record of his performance." But Amano signaled he would be a less politically outspoken director-general of the agency.
He said the IAEA head's job was to uphold non-proliferation and promote peaceful uses of nuclear energy, not to negotiate or critique policy toward nuclear problem cases now handled by world powers on the U.N. Security Council.
Amano, 62, is running against Abdul Minty, 69, South Africa's IAEA ambassador, to succeed ElBaradei who is leaving office in November after 12 years. Amano is favored in a vote by the IAEA's 35-nation Board of Governors expected next month.
Amano said Iran would be a major part of his in-tray if elected but no quick fix was in sight, cautioning against high hopes stirred by Obama's rise.
"The Iranian nuclear issue is deep-rooted. It has been gestating for 20-30 years. I think it is wise not to aim for quick, early success," Amano said in his 22nd-floor office opposite ElBaradei's highrise headquarters on the Danube River.
"For some weeks and months, the Iran issue will not move that quickly. The United States is now reviewing policy, Iran is approaching presidential elections (in June) which will be very important in deciding the future of Iran," he said.
The vote will pit anti-Western, nuclear hardliners now in power and relative moderates seeking detente with the West.
Tehran says it is enriching uranium only for electricity. Its record of nuclear secrecy and curbs on IAEA inspections stir Western suspicions of an illicit quest for atom bombs. Iran has drawn three sets of sanctions for refusing to halt the program.
ElBaradei upset Western powers over remarks suggesting moves to isolate Iran had backfired, saying U.S. talk of last-resort war on Tehran was "crazy" and that Iranian nuclear activity was a fait accompli demanding a compromise for the sake of peace.
Amano signaled he would keep a lower profile as IAEA chief.
"The IAEA's basic function is not political negotiation but implementing already agreed safeguards. Remarks by the director have political implications which, if made without properly assessing these implications, can be very dangerous..."
Amano said he would work to improve communication between the IAEA Secretariat, which oversees inspections, and the 35 agency governors -- who include all major powers -- and that the agency director should consult more with them.
"He is under the board's authority and control," he said.
ElBaradei has complained of shoestring funding and obsolete equipment undermining the IAEA's non-proliferation mission, and Amano welcomed Obama's call for doubling the watchdog's budget over the next four years. The budget is now $293 million.
But he said the IAEA could do more with resources it has if it had more efficient management, which he pledged to carry out.
"We have to make maximum efforts to reduce waste."
Japan is the IAEA's second largest donor after the United States and a permanent pillar in its Board of Governors.