Hide-and-Seek: Syria, the IAEA and the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons

International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Yukiya Amano warned his agency could issue a judgment of Syria’s alleged nuclear work based on current evidence if Damascus does increase its cooperation with U.N. inspecions.

The warning, confirmed by three Western diplomats with knowledge of Amano’s letter to Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Mouallem, marked a shift in strategy in the U.N. nuclear watchdog’s bid over more than two years to examine the suspected reactor site and three other areas with possible atomic ties, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Syria has denied multiple IAEA requests for visits to the Dair Alzour site, where a suspected partially constructed nuclear reactor was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike. Inspectors were prohibited from the area after a June 2008 visit turned up traces of anthropogenic natural uranium. Damascus has rejected accusations it had engaged in illicit nuclear activities, though it suspended its cooperation with the U.N. watchdog following the 2008 visit.

The Vienna-based agency could release an assessment of Syria’s nonproliferation treaty compliance as soon as this month, when it is expected to make public a new safeguards report before its 35-nation governing board convenes on March 7. Amano asked Syria’s foreign minister for an answer ahead of the March meeting and said the agency would not accept an 11th-hour reply; to date, Syria’s only reaction has been to request that the deadline be postponed, the three diplomats said.

The U.N. nuclear watchdog has concluded from existing evidence that Syria covertly established a nuclear reactor at Dair Alzour and did not disclose the facility’s existence, according to two diplomats with knowledge of the investigation. The assertion is based largely on architectural similarities between the building that once stood at the site and other facilities known to house nuclear reactors, the first three diplomats said, referring to past safeguards reports by the agency. The Dair Alzour building’s shielding, power and water systems were indicative of a possible nuclear reactor site, the agency indicated in reports between November 2008 and November 2010.

The United States has urged several other governing board member nations to support a potential resolution pressing Syria to permit IAEA monitors, said two of the diplomats, each of whom represent member nations. Such a call can precede further U.N. action, according to the Journal.

Unofficial calls for a governing board resolution were issued when the board last convened in December, one of the three diplomats said. Washington wanted to make clear that Damascus cannot “duck and hide from the IAEA in respect to fulfilling obligations” by stonewalling agency inspection requests, the diplomat said.

IAEA Takes Harder Stand on Syria, Global Security Newswire, Feb. 1, 2011

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