VIENNA Pakistan became the new chair of the U.N. nuclear watchdog's governing body on Monday, although it is outside a global anti-atomic arms pact and home to a smuggler who supplied nuclear secrets to Iran and North Korea.
Some Western diplomats have privately suggested they do not see the choice as ideal because -- like India, North Korea and Israel -- Pakistan has shunned the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that is at the heart of the work of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Some analysts say Pakistan's nuclear arsenal and stockpile of weapons-grade material pose a risk in the region because of internal security threats from the Taliban and al Qaeda.
But no country opposed Pakistan's nomination by a group of Middle Eastern and south Asian member states at a meeting of the IAEA governors, which approved the new chairman by acclamation, one diplomat who attended the closed-door session said.
The one-year position rotates between regions and entails chairing debates of the IAEA's decision-making board of governors and helping it reach to consensus decisions.
It does not give Pakistan, which takes over from Malaysia, individual powers to decide U.N. nuclear policy.
"The United States of America looks forward very much to working with the Pakistani governor as chairman of the board of governors," U.S. Ambassador Glyn Davies told reporters.
Pakistan is a long-standing and "very law-abiding" member of the IAEA, said Islamabad's envoy Ansar Parvez said. "We got no opposition from any side at all," he said after the meeting.
NUCLEAR SMUGGLING RING
Nuclear expert Mark Hibbs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said NPT members "may be unhappy that Pakistan ... will be steering the IAEA's prime decision-making body" during the coming year.
But the U.N. body is not the secretariat of the anti-nuclear arms pact and "under the IAEA's statute Pakistan has the same privileges and rights as all other IAEA members," Hibbs said.
Pakistan becomes IAEA board chair at a time of international tension over Iran's nuclear program, which the West suspects is aimed at making bombs and Tehran says is for peaceful power generation purposes.
Parvez suggested he may try to mediate on various IAEA issues and "establish some communication between different groups and different interests" as chairman.
Iran and North Korea, seen as major proliferation risks by the West, are believed to have benefited from a nuclear smuggling ring run by Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan's atomic bomb and a national hero.
He confessed on television in 2004 to selling nuclear secrets to Iran, North Korea and Libya. Pakistani authorities denied any connection to Khan's smuggling ring but have never let foreign investigators question him.
As an IAEA member state, Pakistan has the right to be board chairman. Board chairs are traditionally approved unanimously after the nomination by a regional group and any opposition to Pakistan could have upset this informal rule, diplomats say.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute says Pakistan has about 60 warheads while rival India has 60-70.
Pakistan chaired the IAEA board also in 1962-63 and in 1986-87, while India had the post in 1970-71 and 1994-95 -- before both conducted nuclear tests in 1998.
(Editing by David Stamp)