A Bush administration campaign to replace the head of the United Nations' nuclear watchdog agency has faltered after all 15 countries approached by U.S. diplomats -- including Britain, Canada and Australia -- refused to support the plan, U.S. officials said in interviews.
The White House had hoped that at least one of the three English-speaking allies would agree to block Mohamed ElBaradei from a third term as director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Mohamed ElBaradei took office in 1997.
But with the United States proposing no other candidate, no country was willing to turn against ElBaradei, who is admired within the agency for his willingness to challenge the administration's assertions on Iraq and Iran.
That same willingness has put ElBaradei deeply at odds with the White House and has became the driving factor in the administration's efforts to replace him, officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the diplomatic sensitivities involved.
"It's on hold right now," said one U.S. policymaker who was involved in lobbying against ElBaradei. "Everyone turned us down, even the Brits."
A British official confirmed that account, saying, "We can certainly live with another ElBaradei term."
U.S. diplomats had tried to coax several people into challenging ElBaradei, including Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, but no one was willing to run against the 62-year-old Egyptian diplomat, who was asked by a majority of IAEA board members to stay on the job for five more years.
There is still hope among some U.S. officials that an Argentine nuclear specialist will agree to run, although the deadline for submissions was Dec. 31. "There's some thinking that the emergence of a new candidate could encourage members to oppose ElBaradei," another U.S. official said.
Publicly, the administration has said its efforts to replace ElBaradei are motivated solely by a desire to see U.N. executives adopt a two-term limit. But most allies have viewed the campaign as retaliation against someone who questioned U.S. intelligence on Iraq and is now moving cautiously on Iran.
The U.S. effort, led by John R. Bolton, the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, included sifting through intercepts of ElBaradei's phone calls in hopes of finding material to use against him.
There have also been orchestrated leaks by unnamed U.S. or Western officials who have told reporters that Iran was secretly improving upon a weapons program and that ElBaradei was trying to hide that information from the IAEA board.
Yesterday, diplomats in Vienna, where the IAEA is based, said one of the more recent accusations -- that Iran had bought large quantities of the metal beryllium for a nuclear charge -- had proved to be unfounded.
After the beryllium claim first surfaced in news reports from Vienna, U.S. officials said ElBaradei had concealed the information from the public. But diplomats said yesterday that an exhaustive investigation found that Iran's attempts to buy the material, which has dozens of civilian applications, were unsuccessful.
The new revelations are unlikely to help the U.S. case against the IAEA chief.
In recent meetings in Vienna, Washington and several European capitals, foreign diplomats said they would not join Bolton's effort.
Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, the Netherlands, Poland, Pakistan and South Africa were all approached in addition to Canada, Britain and Australia, U.S. officials said.
Some countries targeted in IAEA investigations, such as Pakistan, South Korea and Brazil, support removing ElBaradei, whom they consider too tough. Iranian officials said privately that they would also like to see ElBaradei go. But without the backing of a powerful and neutral party such as Britain or France, the U.S. strategy faltered.
The Europeans presented a unified response, telling American officials that they appreciate the principle of term limits but that with an empty field they will back ElBaradei.
The U.S. effort may collapse altogether, officials said, if Bolton leaves the State Department in coming weeks, as is expected.
"He was the driving force behind the block-ElBaradei idea," said one official. Bolton's office declined to confirm or deny reports that he is being replaced by Robert G. Joseph, who ran nonproliferation policy at the National Security Council until November and is well liked by his European counterparts.