The United States is about to push for so-called special inspections in Syria by the U.N. nuclear watchdog, a rarely used tool to seek access in a country that otherwise denies entry to sensitive sites, diplomats familiar with the issue say.
After a report Tuesday from the International Atomic Energy Agency that showed no substantial progress in its investigation of Syria's nuclear activities, Western countries may start to play hardball by implementing the rarely used procedure, the diplomats told The Times this week.
"The United States wants to bring up the subject of special inspections in Syria at the IAEA Board of Governors in December," said a European diplomat who asked to remain unnamed because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Countries that are signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty may be subject to special inspections if the agency decides that the information obtained in routine visits is not adequate to fulfill its duties, which include watching for signs that a country may be trying to obtain nuclear weapons.
Currently, a reactor in Damascus is the only Syrian nuclear facility under international watch, and the agency needs the country's permission to visit any other location.
The IAEA has employed the special inspections tool twice. It sent its staff on such a visit to Romania in 1992, but a year later a similar request to North Korea was denied.
If a country rejects the request, it can be subject to IAEA censure or referral to the U.N. Security Council, which can impose sanctions.
Syria came to the forefront of the agency's attention in 2007, after Israel bombed a suspected nuclear site northeast of Damascus. In June 2008, the agency said it had received information alleging that Syria had been building a nuclear reactor at Al Kibar, also known as Dair Alzour.
According to U.S. intelligence disclosures, the facility was of North Korean design. Damascus, a close ally of Iran, denies the existence of any clandestine nuclear program in the country but has let IAEA inspectors visit the bombed site only once.
Syria has denied the agency's requests for further access to the Al Kibar site, as well as to three other locations allegedly related to it, on the grounds that they are military facilities. Inspectors worry that the sites will lose whatever clues they may hold.
"With the passage of time, some of the information concerning the Dair Alzour site is further deteriorating or has been lost entirely," IAEA chief Yukiya Amano wrote in this week's report on Syria.
Amano stressed that "it is critical, therefore, that Syria actively cooperate with the agency on these unresolved safeguards implementation issues without further delay."
There are other Syrian nuclear puzzles. In 2008 and 2009 IAEA inspectors found modified uranium particles at the Al Kibar site and the Miniature Source Neutron Reactor in the Syrian capital that were not part of the county's reported inventory. This spring the agency came across a "small quantity of uranyl nitrate," another suspicious substance.
Syria has since offered explanations for those discoveries, but "inconsistencies between Syria's declarations and the agency's findings remained unresolved," Amano wrote.
His latest report also said that Damascus is reluctant to let inspectors inside a pilot acid-purification plant near the city of Homs that the IAEA wants to check "for the purpose of determining the extent of any uranium-processing activities and nuclear material at that location."
Western diplomats following the case are frustrated by what they describe as Syria's intransigence.
"The new IAEA report on Syria seems to be similar to the one from September, showing no progress in the agency's investigation," said one diplomat in Vienna who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Another diplomat familiar with the issue said patience with Syria's lack of cooperation is wearing thin and that the country may now be ripe for the special inspections procedure.
Damianova is a special correspondent.