Tue, Dec 14, 2004 - Page 1 News List

US tapping UN nuclear watchdog chief's phone

THE GUARDIAN AND AP , LONDON,WASHINGTON AND CANBERRA

The Bush administration has been listening in on phone conversations between the director of the Inter-national Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Iranian diplomats with the aim of gathering evidence to remove the UN bureaucrat from his post, it was reported on Sunday.

With Washington's campaign against IAEA chief Mohammad ElBaradei now in its second year, the administration has acquired dozens of telephone intercepts of such conversations in the hopes of finding evidence of wrongdoing, the Washington Post said.

The daily quoted three anonymous US government officials as saying that the administration embarked on its eavesdropping mission to collect material that would discredit ElBaradei in his dealings with Tehran in the crisis over its clandestine nuclear program.

At the IAEA headquarters in Vienna it is taken for granted that ElBaradei's phone calls are tapped.

For the neo-conservatives in the Bush administration, ElBaradei has been an enemy since he exposed the hollowness of Washington's claims about former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's nuclear arsenal during the run-up to the war on Iraq. In recent months, as efforts to halt Tehran's nuclear program gathered pace, some US officials who were skeptical of a diplomatic resolution accused ElBaradei of hiding evidence of Iran's weapons program from the agency.

Under a deal brokered by Britain, Germany and France, Tehran agreed last month to suspend uranium enrichment. However, the US has been pressing for Iran to be taken to the UN Security Council.

State Department hardliners have openly complained about ElBaradei's differing approach. How-ever, the wire taps produced no clear evidence of inappropriate contact between ElBaradei and officials in Tehran.

"Some people think he sounds way too soft on the Iranians, but that's about it," one official told the Post.

ElBaradei has said he intends to seek a third term when his current mandate at the agency expires next summer. He enjoys broad support among the agency's 35-strong executive. Nominations for the post close on Dec. 31.

Meanwhile, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer de-clined to comment yesterday on a Post report that he had turned down a US request to challenge ElBaradei for his job.

"Our original strategy was to get Alex Downer to throw his hat in the ring, but we couldn't," an unidentified US administration official told the newspaper.

The Post said the US began canvassing potential candidates to replace ElBaradei several months ago, including Downer, two Japan-ese diplomats and two South Koreans.

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