The Bush administration said on Monday that it would continue to press for Mohamed ElBaradei to be replaced next year as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, but European diplomats and some administration officials said they could not rule out his staying on if no suitable alternative emerged.
Officials at the White House and the US state department repeated in nearly identical language on Monday that the administration adhered to the so-called Geneva rule -- named after a group of 14 wealthy countries that subsidize the UN -- that leaders of international organizations should serve only two terms and then retire.
ElBaradei, an Egyptian lawyer who has tangled with the administration on Iraq and drawn criticism from conservatives for his failure to declare that Iran has a nuclear weapons program, began running the international agency overseeing nuclear programs in 1997. His second four-year term ends next fall, and he has said he would like a third term.
"Our view has always been, two terms is enough," said Richard Boucher, the state department spokesman, adding that no decision had been made on who might replace ElBaradei.
"With regard to any specific agency, we'll have to see who the candidates are. We'll make our decisions at that time," he said.
The administration's comments were prompted by a report in The Washington Post on Sunday that secret negotiations conducted by ElBaradei with Iran had been intercepted by US intelligence services but that they did not reveal anything incriminating to strengthen the hand of conservatives in the administration seeking his ouster.
Bush administration officials said they could not confirm that his conversations had been monitored, but several said they would not be surprised if that were the case. In August, Lieutenant General Mike Hayden, head of the National Security Agency, testified before Congress that electronic surveillance was often carried out to give "tactical support to state department negotiators."
Despite the US position that ElBaradei should not have another term, European and other diplomats said he had proved effective in recent negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program in which he repeatedly criticized the Tehran government for failing to disclose all its nuclear-related activities. He has also declared that Iran still needs to dispel doubts about its programs.
Last month, Iran acceded to a request by Britain, France and Germany to suspend a major part of its nuclear program in return for discussions on possible future economic incentives. These talks are to resume this week.
Bush administration hard-liners, led by John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, have criticized ElBaradei's performance publicly and privately, particularly because of his refusal before the Iraq war to endorse the administration's view that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program.