UK secretly backs removal of nuclear chief

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The British government, while publicly supporting the efforts of Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the UN's nuclear watchdog, to stop Iran developing nuclear weapons, is secretly backing US plans to remove him.

The US State Department and the CIA were last week reported to have tapped phone conversations with Iranian officials by Dr ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in an attempt to gather information that could discredit him.

The Bush administration believes that Dr ElBaradei is taking too soft a line on Iran. In public Britain is closer to the IAEA position than Washington's: with Germany and France, it has led an EU initiative to persuade Iran to freeze its nuclear development. While the US refuses to rule out the use of force, the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, has described bombing Iran's facilities as "inconceivable".

It had been assumed that Britain was also well-disposed towards Dr ElBaradei, who has said he plans to seek a third term next year as IAEA chief, but a well-placed Whitehall source revealed that officials had secretly backed US moves to replace him. The Foreign Office gave its support to the plan weeks ago, and the Department of Trade and Industry, in charge of Britain's nuclear regulation, was also behind the move, according to the source.

Dr ElBaradei has angered Britain and the US by contradicting their claims that Iraq was seeking to reconstitute its nuclear programme. The Foreign Office refused to comment, but behind the scenes it is justifying its decision to back the Americans on a technicality known as the "Geneva rule". This says senior UN officials should serve no more than two terms, which would bring Dr ElBaradei's tenure to an end next summer.

Some of the IAEA's 35 board members are understood to want the 62-year-old Egyptian to stay on for a third term. To prevent his re-election, the US, backed by Britain, need to obtain 12 votes against him. The Washington Post reported last week that the US campaign is being driven by John Bolton, the hardline under-secretary of state for arms control, adding that the Americans would like to see Alexander Downer, the Australian Foreign Minister, as the new IAEA chief.

Mr Downer has acknowledged being approached about the job, but is thought to be unwilling to mount a direct challenge to Dr ElBaradei, who has worked for the IAEA for 20 years. The dozens of taps on his phone are not thought to have uncovered any evidence to use against him. A spokes-woman for the Vienna-based IAEA said she was not surprised that Dr ElBaradei's phone had been tapped, but refused to comment further.

Tehran, however, has said "it does not matter" who heads the IAEA. "We are not co-operating with the people of the IAEA, but ... with an international agency," said Hassan Rowhani, of Iran's Supreme National Security Council.