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US Will Support Third Term for IAEA Chief ElBaradei


The Bush administration says it will support another term for International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director Mohamed ElBaradei despite past policy differences. Confirmation of the decision followed a meeting Thursday between Mr. ElBaradei and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The Bush administration had been quietly seeking a replacement for Mr. ElBaradei, with whom it has had a bumpy relationship dating from the IAEA weapons inspections in Iraq before the ouster of Saddam Hussein.

But the effort apparently generated little support among key U.S. allies and no alternate candidate came forward.

With the IAEA in the midst of critical contacts on Iran's nuclear program, officials here now say the United States will join in a consensus vote for Mr. ElBaradei's reappointment at the IAEA board meeting in Vienna next week.

At a news briefing, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the administration continues to believe, as a matter of principle, that limiting U.N. agency chiefs to two terms in office would be healthy for the international system.

Mr. ElBaradei, an Egyptian lawyer who has been the IAEA chief since 1997, is understood to have rankled officials by refusing to embrace the U.S. contention that Iran has a secret nuclear weapons program.

But under questioning, spokesman McCormack declined to criticize Mr. ElBaradei's handling of the Iran issue, saying the focus belongs on Iran, not the IAEA.

"We believe that Dr. ElBaradei as well as the IAEA team working on the issue with respect to Iran is working in a serious way," said Mr. McCormack. "But let's step back for a second here. The conversation is not about the IAEA, it's about Iranian behavior. We have had suspicions about Iranian behavior concerning their nuclear activities for quite some time. So that's where the discussion and the focus should be, and that's where our focus is."

The IAEA has been investigating Iran's nuclear program and is monitoring its suspension of uranium enrichment under last November's Paris agreement between the Tehran government and the so-called EU Three - Britain, France and Germany.

Secretary of State Rice reaffirmed U.S. support for the EU initiative in talks here Wednesday with German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who said European cooperation with Mr. ElBaradei on Iran had been excellent.

While stopping short of proclaiming that Iran has a covert nuclear program, Mr. ElBaradei has said that Tehran has kept details of its nuclear activities hidden from the agency for more than a decade.

The IAEA chief is expected to give board members including the United States a briefing on the agency's two-year probe of Iran's nuclear program next week.

Secretary Rice's half-hour meeting with Mr. ElBaradei Thursday was the highest-level U.S. contact with him in several months.

Spokesman McCormack said in a wide-ranging talk, they agreed to work to strengthen the international nuclear non-proliferation regime, including the urgent need to halt the spread of uranium enrichment and reprocessing technology.

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