International Atomic Energy Agency chief Yukiya Amano. Picture: JOE KLAMAR / AFP
International Atomic Energy Agency chief Yukiya Amano. Picture: JOE KLAMAR / AFP

Vienna — The international body in charge of inspecting Iran’s nuclear programme is searching for new leadership after health problems forced its director to plan an early end to his term.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) director general Yukiya Amano seeks to leave the Vienna-based agency by March, according to two diplomats briefed on the matter who asked not to be named. An official IAEA announcement is expected as early as next week.

“The director general is in contact with members of the board of governors regarding his future plans,” the agency’s press office said in a statement. “He will make a formal communication to the board at an appropriate time.”

Amano, 72, missed an extraordinary board meeting last week because of health issues, the second time in less than a year. His shortened term, which was originally set to expire in December 2021, will thrust the agency into an unexpected leadership battle as its Iran inspectors can expect scrutiny to increase.

“It’s unprecedented for an IAEA director general to resign due to inability to perform duties due to health reasons,” said Tariq Rauf, the agency’s former head of policy coordination. “The IAEA statute is silent on the matter.”

Chief policy coordinator Cornel Feruta could be asked to assume some leadership duties while the IAEA board organises elections, according to the diplomats. Amano’s office is informing ambassadors that he wants to ensure “an orderly transition process” in the midst of rising tensions with Iran, they said.

IAEA investigators continue reviewing material for any new information about Iran’s past weapons activities. Agency labs are similarly assessing environmental samples taken from a warehouse alleged to have stored radioactive material that may not have been declared. It will be up to Amano or his successor to decide whether inspectors’ conclusions warrant an IAEA board report.

Amano was instrumental in raising pressure on Iran by issuing a series of reports that detailed the military dimensions of its earlier nuclear work. His approach drew criticism after leaked diplomatic cables suggest he was “solidly in the US court” when it came to dealing with Tehran’s government.

Amano subsequently issued the December 2015 report ending the IAEA’s active investigation into Iran’s past military-related activities. The 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers gives IAEA inspectors the most robust verification system in existence anywhere in the world, he has said.

“This is hugely significant,” Ian Stewart, a nuclear policy adviser at King’s College in London, said in a Tweet. “Amano seemed intent on staying indefinitely and brought a very particular approach to the agency.”

The IAEA frequently drew criticism for the way it disclosed information under his leadership as public access to meetings and data became increasingly restricted. During the Fukushima nuclear meltdowns, diplomats chided it for being slow to communicate the degree of danger.

It will be up to the IAEA’s 35-member board to determine the election schedule for the next director. They’re scheduled to convene Sept. 9 in the Austrian capital.

Bloomberg