Argentina's candidate to head the UN's nuclear watchdog holds a slight lead in the race to be appointed director general, after coming out on top in an informal straw poll among the agency's board of governors.
Rafael Grossi, Argentina's Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), won 15 votes in the non-binding secret ballot, giving a razor-thin advantage over Cornel Feruta of Romania, who took 14. Lassina Zerbo of Burkina Faso took four votes, while Slovakia's Marta Ziakova did not take any.
"As part of ongoing informal consultations related to the appointment process, the IAEA Board of Governors today conducted a straw poll on the four candidates that have been nominated for the post of Director General," the agency said in a statement.
The result essentially reveals it's now a two-horse race, with Feruta and Grossi – who has the support of the Mauricio Macri administration – now looking to firm up their existing support and attract new nations.
The poll, intended to assess the level of support for candidates, quizzed 35 members who make up the IAEA's Board of Governors. The successful candidate must win two-thirds of the board, with 12 votes considered to be a blocking minority
The agency is searching for a new chief following the death of Japanese expert Yukiya Amano in late July. The board hopes to appoint a new director general by October for a term of four years, with the winner expected to take office no later than January 1, 2020.
Crucially, members are seeking to appoint its new chief by consensus and, under its rules and regulations, it can consult members via straw poll at any time during the process. Any vote cast is non-binding and is later put to a vote before the IAEA's General Conference, which has representatives from all 171 member states.
Grossi, a veteran diplomat with a wealth of nuclear experience, has the support of the Mauricio Macri administration and is believed to have the backing of the United States and Brazil.
Last month, US Energy Secretary Rick Perry said publicly that Grossi “sounds like a perfect candidate” for the position, although Washington has not explicitly declared its support for the Argentine diplomat.
However, his main rival for the post, Feruta – who worked as a journalist before entering Romania's diplomatic service in 1998 – has been serving as the agency's chief coordinator and has depicted himself as the candidate of continuity.
The procedure of appointing a new director general would ordinarily take around a year but a meeting of the IAEA's board of governors held after Amano's death agreed to an accelerated timetable which should see a new head appointed in October. The US was said to be pushing for an even earlier appointment.
The race to succeed Amano has been keenly watched given heightened international tensions over Iran's nuclear activities. The UN agency is currently confronted with the unravelling of the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran, which began when US President Donald Trump unilaterally pulled the United States out of the agreement in May 2018.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani recently ordered all limits on nuclear research and development to be lifted, the country's third step in scaling down its commitments under the deal.