VIENNA — The world's top nuclear watchdog chose Japan's Yukiya Amano as its next head on Thursday _ and he touched on the devastation U.S. atom bombs wreaked on his country in pledging to do his utmost to prevent the spread of nuclear arms.
The decision by the 35-nation International Atomic Energy Agency board ended a tug of war on who should succeed Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, who saw his agency vaulted into prominence during a high-profile 12-year tenure.
North Korea left the nonproliferation fold to develop a nuclear weapons program on ElBaradei's watch and his agency later launched inconclusive probes on suspicions that those to nations were interested in developing nuclear weapons.
ElBaradei's activist approach to his job often rankled with Washington _ and it had a strong preference for Amano, seen by the U.S. as a technocrat amenable to pursuing a hard line on Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Amano's allusions to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki pointed to a deep commitment to non-proliferation. And Japan, which is separated from North Korea only by a narrow body of water, keenly shares the United States' concerns about Pyongyang's nuclear program.
Developing countries supported Amano's rival, South Africa's Abdul Samad Minty, considered ready to challenge the U.S. and other nuclear power countries on issues such as disarmament _ and which are generally supportive of Iran's claims to having a right to nuclear power.
An initial session in March ended inconclusively and Thursday's meeting went down to the wire, with Amano winning only in the fourth round.
That and the fact that Amano barely eked out his victory, just clearing the two-thirds majority needed, reflected a continuing divide between the two camps. The divisions have served as an obstacle in one of its key tasks _ probing nations suspected of secret, possibly weapons-related, nuclear activities.
While Amano was born after the U.S. nuclear strikes that ravaged Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, he alluded to those events in brief comments to reporters, suggesting that as a "national coming from Japan" he would work particularly hard to reduce the threat from atomic arms.
Expanding on that theme in recent comments to the Austrian daily, Die Presse, he said that he was "resolute in opposing the spread of nuclear arms because I am from a country that experienced Hiroshima and Nagasaki."
Now his country's chief delegate to the IAEA, Amano was previously his country's senior official for disarmament and related issues. He has also chaired key IAEA meetings during his more than three-year tenure as chief IAEA delegate.
He still needs to be confirmed by the board, in a session planned for Friday, and in September by the full IAEA general assembly. IAEA officials suggested both meetings would rubber-stamp the choice of Amano, saying it would be unheard of for them to overturn Thursday's vote results.
Amano collected 23 votes, to 11 for Minty _ just giving him the two-thirds majority needed for victory.
Amano touched on the North-South divide gripping the agency in his post-session comments.
Saying he would do his utmost to prevent nuclear proliferation, Amano, 62, appealed for "solidarity of all the member states _ countries from North, from South, from East and West" to achieve that goal.
Amano will be taking control of the IAEA at a particularly difficult time. Its nuclear investigations of Iran and Syria are both deadlocked, and it has no overview at all of North Korea, which is forging ahead with its nuclear arms program.
The Iranian investigation in particular has been affected by the deep divide between Western nations, including the United States, and developing countries that accuse the West of being indifferent to the problems of poorer countries.
Iran is under three sets of U.N. Security Council sanctions for refusing to freeze its uranium enrichment program _ an activity that Tehran insists is meant to generate nuclear fuel but which can also be used to produce fissile material for nuclear warheads.
Representatives of some developing nations have privately said they share Western fears that Iran may seek to use enrichment to develop weapons. But as a bloc, they tend to support Iran's argument that it has a right to an enrichment program for generating energy.
The developing bloc also questions the West's assertions that Iran in the past ran experiments and drew up plans reflecting its interest in nuclear weapons, backing Tehran's dismissal of U.S. and other intelligence pointing to such activities.
Israel compounds the acrimony, with developing nations supporting Islamic countries critical of the West for focusing on Iran and Syria while ignoring what they say is the Jewish state's undeclared nuclear weapons capability.
ElBaradei steps down in November and the U.S. and its backers had backed Amano as a man sympathetic to their focus _ nonproliferation. Minty, in contrast, was generally seen as ready to give more weight to demands by the developing countries pushing the U.S. and other nuclear weapons states to disarm.
The West had viewed Elbaradei as sometimes challenging its arguments and concerns, and for being too soft on Iran. In 2005, Washington tried unsuccessfully to block the Egyptian's appointment to another four-year term.
Without publicly saying so, the U.S. and its allies had made clear before Tuesday's voting that they favored Amano because they saw him as someone who would manage the IAEA without thrusting himself into the political fray.
John Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under the previous administration, hailed Amano's victory in comments indirectly critical of Elbaradei.
"I think he will reduce the politicization of the IAEA," he said. "That alone will bring back things into equilibrium."