Two senior ambassadors to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have been declared as candidates to succeed IAEA Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei when he leaves the post in November.
The winning candidate must have the backing of a two-thirds majority in a vote by the IAEA's 35-country board of governors. That formal, secret ballot could take place as soon as a special board meeting in Vienna on March 2-6.
If no winner emerges with the required 2/3 majority after several ballots, the chairman of the IAEA board can restart the process by inviting fresh nominations -- including renominations of the previous candidates.
The two declared candidates are Japanese Ambassador Yukiya Amano and South African Ambassador Abdul Minty. Both have years of experience in negotiations dealing with nuclear disarmament, nonproliferation of nuclear weapons, and peaceful applications of nuclear energy.
Mark Fitzpatrick, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, says that those experiences will be vital to the job of the next IAEA chief.
"The job of the director-general is to carry out the mandate of the IAEA -- which is three pillars on promoting nuclear energy, promoting nuclear safety and preventing the spread of nuclear-weapons technologies," Fitzpatrick says.
"The role is not that of an advocate for disarmament. But it is a role to carry out the collective wishes of the governance structure of the IAEA -- particularly, the 35 nations who comprise the board of governors."
But Fitzpatrick also notes that a rift has been growing recently with the IAEA board that could make it more difficult for members to reach consensus about their collective wishes. He says such a rift would contrast the way the IAEA board has operated by consensus during much of its 52-year history.
"There seems to be a growing rift between those who are focused more on nonproliferation -- on stopping the spread of nuclear weapons technology and material, and those focused more on the disarmament obligations in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty," Fitzpatrick says.
"The more developed countries are often those that are more concerned about nonproliferation," he notes. "Many of the developing countries have taken up more concern about disarmament."
Diplomatic sources in Vienna say those divisions are likely to impact the way board members vote when they choose el-Baradei's successor. They say Amano is backed mainly by industrialized countries while Minty is favored more by developing countries.
Minty is a 69-year-old career diplomat who specializes in nuclear disarmament. He also chairs South Africa's Council for the Nonproliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction.
His rival, the 62-year-old Amano, is a career diplomat with the same areas of expertise. Amano has been campaigning hard for the post and is considered by many as the front-runner.
Dealing With Iran
Fitzpatrick says whoever wins the vote must be able to work with Iranian officials in the years ahead.
He notes that whoever becomes the "next director-general "will undoubtedly have Iran as his foremost challenge -- to persuade Iran both to cooperate with the IAEA in its investigation of previous activities, for which there is a great deal of evidence of work directed at nuclear-weapons development, and also to persuade Iran to abide by the mandate of the board of governors to suspend the enrichment and reprocessing-related activity so that confidence can be restored and a way can be found to employ diplomacy to avert a crisis regarding Iran's nuclear program."
In an interview with Reuters this week, Amano spoke about the importance of working with Iran. He also praised the readiness of U.S. President Barack Obama's administration to sit down and talk with Iranian officials about Tehran's disputed nuclear ambitions after years of isolation policy by his predecessor, George W. Bush.
Amano said that while Iran is a member of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, "we don't have the effective framework of dialogue so far. Therefore, having an effective framework of dialogue with Iran is a welcoming sign."
Indeed, one possible framework for talks with Iran envisions a group known as the "EU-3 plus 3" -- comprised of diplomats from France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, plus Russia, China, and the United States.
It's an approach supported by Gary Samore, a nonproliferation expert at the Council on Foreign Relations who is due to join Obama's National Security Council before the IAEA board meeting in March.
Samore recently co-authored recommendations on how Obama's administration should try to manage nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. As part of a new approach, Samore said there should be formal nuclear negotiations between Iran and the "EU-3 plus 3."
Samore's report also says that Iran appears to be two to three years away from building an enrichment facility capable of producing sufficient weapons-grade uranium quickly enough to support a credible nuclear-weapons option.
As a consequence, he concludes that the Obama administration will likely have some breathing space to develop a new diplomatic approach to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear-weapons capability. Together with formal nuclear talks, he also has recommended direct and unconditional talks between the United States and Iran on a range of other bilateral issues.
In his interview with Reuters, Amano described a similar approach, saying Iran should be treated with respect through fruitful dialogue. He said such an approach could strengthen the UN nuclear watchdog.
Amano also has welcomed Obama's call for doubling the IAEA's budget during the next four years. But he says he is concerned that the global financial crisis could prevent some governments from delivering on their promises.
Japan is the IAEA's second-largest donor after the United States and is a permanent member of its board of governors.