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U.S. Seeks IAEA Leverage in Syria Probe

Peter Crail

The United States last month suggested that further measures may be required to open up Syrian sites to international nuclear inspectors, raising the prospect of a rarely used “special inspection” by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Absent Syria’s cooperation with the ongoing IAEA investigation, “we are approaching a situation where the [IAEA] Board [of Governors] and the Secretariat must consider all available measures and authorities to pursue the verification assurances the international community seeks,” Glyn Davies, the U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, said in a Sept. 16 statement to the board during its week-long meeting.

Davies has suggested in recent weeks that a special inspection is one such option. Reuters reported Sept. 16 that Davies said in August that “a number of countries” were beginning to ask whether it was time to initiate a special inspection to gain access to suspect locations.

Under the IAEA model safeguards agreement, the agency can conduct a special inspection to investigate undeclared sites if the existing inspection mechanism “is not adequate for the agency to fulfill its responsibilities under the agreement.” That provision has been used only twice: in Romania in 1992 at the Romanian government’s request, and in North Korea in 1993. Pyongyang rejected the inspection, touching off an international crisis leading to a nuclear freeze agreement with the United States a year later.

Although the IAEA board can request such an inspection, the decision is up to the agency’s director-general, currently Yukiya Amano.

The IAEA, the United States, and the European Union have all called on Syria to implement an additional protocol to its safeguards agreement, which would also allow access to undeclared sites.

Amano’s Response

Amano expressed frustration with Syria’s lack of cooperation with a two-year investigation into suspected illicit nuclear activities. “Syria has not cooperated with the agency since June 2008 in connection with the unresolved issues related to the Dair al Zour site and some other locations,” he told the board Sept. 13.

A facility Israel destroyed at Dair al Zour in 2007 is widely suspected to have been a nuclear reactor under construction with North Korean assistance. The United States publicly accused Syria in 2008 of building the reactor to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. (See ACT, June 2008.) The IAEA also has requested information regarding additional sites that may have some connection to the Dair al Zour facility.

Damascus allowed the agency to carry out one visit to the site in June 2008, but has rebuffed requests for follow-up checks. A Sept. 6 report by Amano to the IAEA board expressed concern that information on the Dair al Zour site “is further deteriorating or has been lost entirely” as time has passed. During its 2008 inspections, the IAEA detected traces of materials that could have been intended for a reactor—in particular, the kind of reactor North Korea has built as part of its weapons program—including chemically processed uranium and graphite. (See ACT, December 2008.)

IAEA officials have said that the uranium particles found at the site could be consistent with nuclear fuel. Syria has not declared any such fuel to the IAEA. Adding to such concerns, a Sept. 6 report by the Institute for Science and International Security cited unnamed U.S. officials as saying that some intelligence information indicated one of the suspect sites associated with Dair al Zour might be a fuel fabrication facility.

The recent IAEA report noted the agency’s continued investigation into previously undeclared experiments Syria carried out at its Miniature Neutron Source Reactor in Damascus. Last year, the agency discovered chemically processed uranium particles not declared as part of Syria’s nuclear research efforts. After initially providing explanations inconsistent with the IAEA findings, Syria admitted to carrying out small-scale uranium-conversion and -irradiation experiments at the facility.

The Sept. 6 IAEA report said Syria had agreed to a “plan of action” with the agency to resolve the agency’s questions about the activities at the Damascus reactor as well as the agency’s request for access to Syria’s phosphoric acid purification plant at Homs.

The Homs plant extracts yellowcake, or milled uranium oxide, from phosphates. The agency is seeking to determine whether the Homs plant had produced larger quantities of yellowcake than Syria has reported. Yellowcake is a precursor for nuclear fuel.

Russian-Syrian Missile Deal

Meanwhile, Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov told reporters in Washington Sept. 17 that Moscow would go ahead with the sale of about 70 P-800 Yakhont anti-ship cruise missiles to Syria despite U.S. and Israeli objections. Noting that a contract for the missiles was signed in 2007, he said, “[W]e do not see the concerns expressed by [the United States and Israel] that these arms will fall into the hands of terrorists.”

The use of a Chinese-origin C-802 anti-ship cruise missile by Lebanese Hezbollah against an Israeli warship during the 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict raised concerns about the transfer of such weapons to Hezbollah by its allies, Iran and Syria. Iran, which acquired the C-802 from China during the 1990s, is widely believed to have provided Hezbollah with the missile used in 2006.

The United States and Israel classify Lebanese Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, a designation not shared worldwide, including by Russia. Israel and Syria also technically remain in a state of conflict.

The Yakhont is a supersonic missile with a range of up to 300 kilometers, delivering a 200-kilogram payload.