Argentina's Grossi takes lead in race to head U.N. atomic watchdog

FILE PHOTO: International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) headquarters is pictured in Vienna

VIENNA (Reuters) - Argentina's Rafael Grossi has taken the lead in a two-person race to head the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog and succeed Yukiya Amano after he died in office in July, according to diplomats who followed a vote by the agency's board on Monday.

Grossi has secured the support of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) heavyweights Brazil and the United States, diplomats say, though Washington is not publicly commenting on whom it is supporting.

Grossi's rival, Cornel Feruta of Romania, was Amano's right-hand man and is currently the IAEA's acting director general. He was one vote ahead in the last ballot a week ago by the IAEA's 35-nation board of governors. Both camps have since been lobbying to win over the other's supporters.

Grossi did not secure the two-thirds of votes needed to win on Monday, but took a clear lead, securing the backing of 20 countries to Feruta's 14, with one abstention. Grossi gained four votes, while Feruta lost three.

Another vote will be held on Tuesday, and if there is still no winner then, another vote will be held on Wednesday, on whether the candidate with more backers should become the agency's chief.

If one abstention remains, the winner will need 23 votes.

The differences between the two men have been more in terms of style than substance. Both have praised the IAEA's safeguards work, which includes policing Iran's nuclear deal with major powers, and diplomats do not expect major changes on that front.

Grossi has pledged that "the IAEA will continue to assume this (safeguards) role in a firm and fair way".

While Feruta has cast himself as the candidate of continuity, pledging to continue Amano's work, which included a very guarded attitude to public statements, Grossi has said he wants the agency to communicate more actively.

Grossi has held news conferences to promote his candidacy, while Feruta has not. But while Grossi has been more outspoken, he has called the leadership change an "opportunity to recalibrate", suggesting moderate reform rather than a total overhaul.


(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Mark Potter)