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World News

Nuclear watchdog image hurts IAEA - incoming chief

VIENNA (Reuters) - The International Atomic Energy Agency’s predominant image as a nuclear watchdog -- played up by the West -- has weakened the IAEA by dividing rich and poor member states, its incoming head said in an interview on Friday.

Newly elected Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Yukiya Amano of Japan smiles during an interview with Reuters in Vienna July 10, 2009. REUTERS/Herwig Prammer

Japan’s Yukiya Amano vowed not to shrink from pursuing cases of alleged nuclear proliferation, like Iran, but suggested this policing role had come to overshadow the agency’s other duty to foster development through peaceful uses of the atom.

“One of (its) weaknesses is that the IAEA is perceived as a nuclear watchdog,” Amano said in his first international media interview since narrowly winning election on July 2 to succeed Mohamed ElBaradei.

“That is not all it is. It is a dual objective organisation. But it is not recognised, perceived as such. And that is one of the causes of mistrust and division,” Amano, 62, Japan’s veteran IAEA ambassador, told Reuters.

Amano said balancing the IAEA’s priorities was crucial to shoring up its credibility among rich and poor member states.

Developing nations fear a campaign by U.S.-led big powers to stop Iran’s uranium enrichment work without hard proof of a bomb agenda will undo their right to a share of nuclear technology and are concerned the agency is not doing enough to uphold it.

Iran has exploited this grievance at the core of rich-poor tensions in the IAEA by asserting that “arrogant” powers bent on halting its nuclear programme want only to stunt its development and preserve inequality rooted in colonial times.

“If I can make some contribution to changing the perception (of the IAEA mainly as a watchdog), it will be helpful in strengthening confidence in the agency,” Amano said.

“That does not mean I will shy away from difficult, very serious issues like Iran or North Korea. I will do my utmost (to tackle them),” the soft-spoken, deliberate diplomat said.

INDEPENDENCE

Amano, who told Reuters in February Iran should be treated with respect through dialogue, was backed mainly by industrialised nations in narrowly prevailing over a South African rival in the IAEA leadership vote.

Western backers privately say they count on him to take a tougher line on applying nuclear safeguards than ElBaradei, who rankled the United States and close allies by advocating negotiated compromise over sanctions against Tehran.

But Amano said suggestions he would do the bidding of a few big powers by having the IAEA focus foremost on stemming the spread of sensitive nuclear know-how were “completely mistaken”.

He cited his role in Japan’s longtime record of aid and investment helping to modernise the developing world.

“Saying this is priority number one and this is priority number two is not my approach. Certainly (anti-proliferation) safeguards is one of those matters of highest priority, as well as peaceful uses of nuclear energy.”

Amano acknowledged that IAEA nuclear inspections suffered from the lack of legal authority to range beyond declared atomic plants to check suspicions of covert military diversions.

He said he would step up efforts to persuade all member states to ratify the IAEA’s now voluntary Additional Protocol covering wider-ranging inspections. “Making it mandatory is not on the agenda now. It would be (politically) difficult.”

Iran does not observe the protocol nor does Syria, something that has hampered IAEA investigations in both countries.

Amano also lent weight to expectations he would “depoliticise” the IAEA leadership after 12 years under his outspoken predecessor, ElBaradei, who dubbed himself the “Secular Pope” after winning the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize.

He told Reuters last week he’d seen no evidence in IAEA files that Iran was seeking nuclear weapons capability -- despite ElBaradei’s “gut feeling” Iran was doing so.

“Objectivity and impartiality are very important before making a value judgment on anything,” Amano said. “If people believe I am impartial and professional, I can strengthen the agency. And that is absolutely needed now.”

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