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Electing the Nuclear Pope

Author: Charles D. Ferguson, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Science and Technology
May 2009
Foreign Policy


Largely outside the public limelight, one of the world's most important elections has been taking place in Vienna. Its victor will become the next leader of the planet's so-called nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). That agency has served as the world's guardian of peaceful nuclear power programs for more than 50 years, ensuring that countries do not abuse their "right" to atomic energy by building nuclear weapons. It's (literally) Nobel Prize-winning work. But unfortunately, the IAEA's elections are a secretive and convoluted mess.

I'll explain why in a second, but first, some context. Iran might be on the verge of making weapons-grade uranium, and the IAEA and its outgoing director-general, Mohamed ElBaradei, have been thrust into the spotlight over their accounting of Iran's nuclear program. Many experts fear that if Iran arms itself with nuclear weapons, a cascade of proliferation will spill across the region, causing potentially irreparable damage to the nonproliferation regime. The stakes for the election could not be higher.

Yet after six weeks, there is no sign of a breakthrough. After neither of the two original candidates was able to garner enough votes to win, three more would-be directors-general were added to the ballot last week.

What's the holdup?

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