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Argentina's IAEA hopeful sounds 'perfect', U.S. energy secretary says


By Francois Murphy

VIENNA (Reuters) - Argentina's contender to become the next chief of the U.N. nuclear watchdog "sounds like a perfect candidate", U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry said on Tuesday, while stopping short of a formal U.S. endorsement.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Yukiya Amano died in July as he was preparing to step down early because of illness. The IAEA's 35-nation Board of Governors hopes to pick his successor next month.

Four candidates have been nominated - Amano's former right-hand man Cornel Feruta of Romania, Argentina's ambassador to the IAEA Rafael Grossi, nuclear test-ban body chief Lassina Zerbo of Burkina Faso and Slovakia's nuclear regulatory chief Marta Ziakova.

Grossi, a veteran of nuclear diplomacy, is the only one to have campaigned publicly. Diplomats who follow the agency say he had a head-start over the others, which he has used to gain the support of Argentina's regional rival Brazil.

Where many countries on the board stand is unclear. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met Grossi in Washington in August, which some diplomats have taken to mean the United States has thrown its considerable weight behind him.

While he was in Vienna on Tuesday for an IAEA meeting, reporters asked Perry about Grossi's candidacy and Argentina's ties to countries including China, which is seeking to build a nuclear power plant there.

"The way you've just described this individual ... is you've got someone who works and at least (is) respected from the Chinese side of the world, who's obviously respected from the South and Central American side of the world and has some fairly substantial level of support from the United States. Did I get that right?," Perry said.

"Sounds like a perfect candidate to me. Sounds like someone who understands all the different complexities of this world we live in."

When asked if that meant he was backing Grossi, however, Perry stopped short of endorsing him.

"It'll all work itself out," he said.

While each candidate would bring their own style to running the IAEA, diplomats in Vienna do not expect a major shift in how the agency handles its most high-profile issues, such as policing Iran's nuclear deal with major powers.

Diplomats say Grossi's main rival at this stage is Feruta, who has taken over as IAEA chief in an acting capacity and has told member states he represents continuity.

But Perry said the top priority was to act fast.

"'Don't drag this out' is the real message here," he said.

(Editing by Ed Osmond)


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