The election of Yukiya Amano as the new head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was a major news event at the first working day of the new week in Iran. This news was on the front page of almost all of Saturday’s newspapers and for some the top news of the first page accompanied by Amano’s picture. Other news channels, from the state-run TV and radio outlets to non-Iran based and foreign-financed satellite channels, broadcast their own analysis and evaluation about the news soon after Amano was elected on Friday.
For many news outlets, Amano’s nationality was a significant part of the news. There were news titles like “New IAEA Head Comes from Japan,” “Japanese Amano Replaces ElBaradei," “What Does New UN Nuclear Watchdog’s Japanese Director Think about Iran’s Nuclear Program?” “ElBaradei’s Successor Comes from Japan,” “Iran’s Nuclear Case: From Arab ElBaradei to Japanese Amano,” and so on. All these articles emphasized the implications of Amano’s nationality in the coming duel between Iran with the West over Tehran’s nuclear program.
The news was analyzed from different points of view. There are a relatively large number of pros and cons, both in Iran and abroad, about this important question of whether or not the election of a Japanese as the new boss of the IAEA favors Iran’s interests.
From a pro-Amano perspective, the success of another Asian diplomat in capturing the helm of an important international organization is regarded as an accomplishment for the entire continent which Iran is a part of. This way of thinking emphasizes the point that with a Japanese national as the new director general of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, Iran’s East-looking foreign policy may be better off in terms of both alliance-making in the region and utilizing the sympathy of Asian nations.
It also could be argued that with the media constantly reminding the world of the tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki committed by the United States at the end of World War II, Iran may be able to elicit sympathy for many influential Japanese, perhaps including Amano.
Amano’s election may be an opportunity for Iran from another perspective as well. There have been many debates in Japan in recent years about whether or not it should go more nuclear. The core of the arguments is that Japan needs nuclearization for its energy needs, but this may be only a red herring to serve the real intention of gaining strength in the face of rising Chinese power. Should Japan decide in coming years to develop more nuclear power, then Iran may be able to lecture Amano that “charity begins at home,” if he asks Tehran to put a halt to its nuclear ambitions.
Indeed, Iran should be able learn from Japanese foreign policy in past decades. Despite all its bias in favor of the West, Tokyo has nevertheless managed to keep a relatively stable and friendly diplomatic relationship with Tehran over the past 30 years. Not only has Japan played an impartial role in mediating some regional or international problems involving Iran (such as its bloody eight-year war with Iraq during the 1980s), Japanese diplomats have many times acted toward the country differently in private as compared to the noise they sometimes make in public over Iran-related disputes. This story could happen again while Amano chairs the IAEA.
On the other hand, there are some reasons for Iran to feel uneasy about Amano’s future orientation when he deals with the challenges of its nuclear controversy. After all, Amano was not Iran’s choice, nor did it lobby for his win. For obvious reasons, Iran preferred his South African rival, Abdul Samad Minty. In 2006, when the agency finally decided to report the country’s nuclear case to the U.N. Security Council, South Africa was one of five countries that abstained. In addition to be part of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and a developing nation, Iran has long established a special political and economic relationship with South Africa, dating back to the time when it was an enthusiastic supporter of the African National Congress (ANC) during its fight against apartheid. Such a background made Minty’s candidacy very attractive to Iran; certainly more so than the Amano candidacy.
Upon his appointment as the new head of the IAEA, Amano said that there is no hard evidence that Tehran is trying to gain the ability to develop nuclear arms. Such comments are, of course, a way of showing his good intentions, but this kind of diplomatic gesture often happens when someone has to appease a wide range of countries over controversial matters like Iranian nuclear development.
Iran’s reaction to the first official remark of the incoming head of the IAEA indicates that it is cautious and needs more time to judge him. Iran is concerned that Amano may soon change his attitude. There is no doubt that many people will be watching this Japanese diplomat very closely.
Shirzad Azad is the editor of the Asia desk at the Moj News Agency in Tehran.© Japan Today