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. UN nuclear watchdog meets with chief ElBaradei set for re-election
VIENNA (AFP) Jun 13, 2005
The UN nuclear watchdog opened a week-long meeting in Vienna Monday expected to re-elect Mohamed ElBaradei as its chief after a surprise folding of US opposition to the former Egyptian diplomat.

The International Atomic Energy Agency's 35-nation board of governors will also be hearing a report on Iran's nuclear program, which the United States claims is a cover for covert atomic weapons development.

The report comes at a diplomatically crucial time as the European Union is pursuing talks to get Iran to guarantee it is not secretly developing nuclear weapons.

The report will attempt to be balanced -- refraining from criticizing Iran for failing to grant IAEA inspectors access to key sites and officials but noting that the Islamic Republic is pushing ahead with construction of a heavy-water reactor that can make plutonium and tunnels at a nuclear site in Isfahan that could hide sensitive activities, a diplomat close to the IAEA told AFP about the confidential document.

The IAEA was expected to approve ElBaradei unanimously by consensus.

Negotiations were underway to bring forward the ballot, making it the first order of business instead of later in the week, a diplomat close to the agency said. Japan was objecting to the agenda change, however, and was now discussing the timetable with the chairman of the IAEA board, the diplomat said.

Japanese ambassador Yukiya Takasu gave merely procedural reasons for his objection but a Western diplomat said Japan was getting even with Egypt for blocking agenda items at a non-proliferation conference in New York last month, specifically a resolution on North Korea's nuclear program which Japan had pushed and which never got out of committee.

The United States last week reversed its opposition to ElBaradei and said it was ready to accept a third four-year term for him despite past policy disagreements over both Iraq's and Iran's nuclear programs.

The United States had no backing from Washington's fellow members on the IAEA's 35-nation board of governors for denying a third term to ElBaradei, who is widely respected as a tireless and fair campaigner for non-proliferation, diplomats said.

Washington had resisted a new term for ElBaradei, who has run the agency since 1997, saying two terms was enough for running an international agency.

But diplomats said the real reason was that ElBaradei had provoked the ire of Washington for questioning US intelligence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction under now deposed dictator Saddam Hussein and for not being tough enough on Iran.

ElBaradei, 62, has said the "jury is still out" on whether Iran is secretly developing nuclear weapons, even if IAEA inspectors have discovered that Iran hid sensitive atomic work for almost two decades until the agency's inspection of the Iranian program began in 2003.

Diplomats were wondering, however, what the United States might expect from ElBaradei in return for America's support.

They said that while ElBaradei wanted to work with the Americans and was willing to compromise on some matters, he was unlikely to change in his thorough, and slow, investigative approach.

Still, the United States wants help for tougher enforcement of international nuclear safeguards and is proposing at the board the creation of a special committee to crack down on violations of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in countries such as Iran.

ElBaradei has switched from opposing the idea to now backing this text, which has been "thoroughly rewritten" in recent months, a Western diplomat close to the IAEA said.

Other issues for the IAEA board will be getting Saudi Arabia to agree to full international inspections, despite Riyadh's desire to sign a protocol that would severely limit IAEA verification inspections, and expressing the agency's concern over North Korea's declarations that it has nuclear weapons.

Saudi Arabia wants to meet its NPT obligations and agree to IAEA safeguard inspections but it also insists on signing a Small Quantities Protocolwhich is designed to make inspections less burdensome in nations with small nuclear programmes, a foreign ministry source said in Riyadh Sunday.

The IAEA is however unhappy with the SQP in the current era of hidden programs in countries like Iran and is studying ways to rescind it.

The SQP allows states to be exempted from requirements to notify the IAEA of stocks of natural uranium of up to 10 tonnes.

This "small" amount can still make enough enriched uranium to produce at least one atom bomb, according to experts.

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