Nuclear report on Syria may augur punitive action
The United Nations’ nuclear watchdog released a detailed report saying Syria “very likely” pursued a clandestine nuclear program, an assertion that is expected to add pressure on a regime already reeling from protests at home and sanctions imposed abroad.
A confidential report published Tuesday by the International Atomic Energy Agency said Syria was building a nuclear reactor at a site in Dair Alzour that was bombed by Israel in September 2007 and had not declared the project to international inspectors, as required by Syria’s international treaty obligations.
The details of the previously reported IAEA allegation that Syria was seeking to build a reactor will come as no surprise to the United States. U.S. intelligence agencies in April 2008 presented evidence asserting that Syria was building a clandestine plutonium reactor at Dair Alzour.
But the report paves the way for possible punitive action against Syria at the U.N. Security Council at a time when the West is seeking ways to increase pressure on President Bashar Assad over his regime’s brutal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators.
“The agency finally weighed in and came up with a conclusion that most governments came up with years ago,” said David Albright, a former weapons inspector who now heads the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington arms control watchdog. “This is laying down the gauntlet against Syria.”
The report stops short of bluntly accusing Syria of being in noncompliance with its treaty obligations. But with Damascus already under intense international pressure, it may be enough to assemble a resolution against the nation, Western diplomats said.
“You can’t ignore the timing,” said Albright. “Syria is politically weaker than it was six months ago, and it might be easier to muster the votes at the [IAEA] board to refer this to the Security Council.”
Although no text of a proposed resolution has been passed around among members of the agency’s Board of Governors or among Security Council members, discussions involving the U.S. and other countries on a possible resolution were ongoing, said a Western diplomat.
“As soon as the report is out, we will begin putting a text down to paper,” said another Western diplomat.
The inspectors’ report notes the challenges of assessing a site that was bombed by Israel, bulldozed by the Syrian government afterward and blocked to inspection since June 2008, when traces of uranium particles were found that Syria alleged must have come from Israeli bombs.
Based on the particles and historical satellite imagery showing the site’s progression and its layout, the agency concluded that “the site could not have served the purpose claimed by Syria,” which had maintained it was an unused military installation.
A separate report on Iran’s nuclear program obtained by The Times says that the Islamic Republic, Syria’s strategic partner, had steadily increased the number of centrifuges producing enriched uranium and expanded its production of nuclear fuel.
According to the report, Iran increased its total stockpile of reactor-grade nuclear fuel enriched to about 3.5% purity by 14% in the last three months, to 9,050 pounds, apparently overcoming any lingering effects of a computer virus attack on its nuclear infrastructure.
Iran also increased the number centrifuges refining uranium by 13% to 5,860 machines at its facility near the city of Natanz.
In addition, it has produced 125 pounds of medical-reactor-grade uranium enriched to 20% purity for a research facility in Tehran, up by about 30 pounds from the last reporting period, according to a copy of the U.N. inspectors’ report.
Iran says it needs the higher-grade fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor after international proposals to recharge the ailing plant collapsed.
But the report could ease tensions between Iran and the West, which accuses Tehran of pursuing nuclear weapons, because Iran has not yet installed centrifuges at its previously undisclosed enrichment facility at Fordow nor launched a set of much-touted advanced centrifuges, Albright said.
Special correspondent Julia Damianova in Istanbul, Turkey, contributed to this report.