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Bloomberg News
August 27, 2018
IAEA’s Syria Probe Remains Stalled

Peter Crail and Anna Hood

Syria continues to refuse full cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) investigation into allegations that it pursued a secret nuclear weapons program, according to an Aug. 28 IAEA report. Syria has not given the agency access to additional sites of interest or turned over sufficient information to explain the presence of undeclared uranium particles detected last year, the report said.

Washington accused Damascus last year of attempting to construct a nuclear reactor with North Korean assistance to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons, prompting the agency’s investigation. (See ACT, May 2008.) Israel destroyed the suspected reactor in a September 2007 air raid. Syria claims the facility, located near the village of Dair al Zour, was a military building with no nuclear applications.

In addition to urging Syria to provide additional transparency, the IAEA report asked other states with information relevant to Syria’s suspected nuclear activities, “including Israel,” to share it with the agency.

The report described the most recent Syrian explanations for refusing requests for additional access to sites and information. A key part of the agency’s probe deals with the presence of chemically processed uranium discovered in samples taken from the Dair al Zour site in June 2008. (See ACT, December 2008.)

Although Damascus claims that the particles came from the bombs Israel used to destroy the facility, the agency maintains that the particles are inconsistent with the type used in munitions. According to the report, Syria has “not yet provided the necessary cooperation” to allow the IAEA to determine the origin of the particles.

In an Aug. 13 letter to the agency, Syria said that it has already provided all of the necessary information on the facility. Damascus also rebuffed agency requests for access to the debris from the site, claiming in the letter that it could not do so because it has been more than a year since the building’s destruction. Neither Syria nor the IAEA provided additional details on that point.

Syria also refused to give the IAEA access to three additional locations the agency has described as “allegedly functionally related” to the Dair al Zour site, claiming that it has no obligation to provide such access because those locations are of a “military and non-nuclear nature.”

Responding to this claim, the IAEA stated in the August report that there is “no limitation…on Agency access to information, activities or locations simply because they may be military related.”

According to a diplomat who was present at the meeting, IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei told the agency’s Board of Governors June 17 that the IAEA is “ready to work with any modality to protect Syria’s confidential military and non-military information.”

In contrast to the frustration it expressed over Syria’s lack of cooperation at the Dair al Zour site, the Aug. 28 report noted that Damascus has provided further explanation regarding the presence of uranium particles discovered at the site of Syria’s sole nuclear reactor.

A June 5 IAEA report indicated that the annual samples at the reactor taken by the agency in August 2008 uncovered additional uranium particles “of a type not declared at the facility.” (See ACT, July/August 2009.) The reactor is a 30-kilowatt miniature neutron source reactor that Syria bought from China in 1991. Such reactors typically are used for training and radioisotope production.

According to the most recent report, Syria stated in a June 8 letter that the particles “resulted from the accumulation of sample and reference materials used in neutron activation analysis.” Damascus supported its claim by providing the agency with access to the site to take additional environmental samples and giving the IAEA relevant information and a list of reference materials to enhance its investigations, the report said. The IAEA said it is currently analyzing the environmental samples it collected to determine the accuracy of Syria’s claims.

During a Sept. 7-11 meeting of the agency’s board, ElBaradei called for greater Syrian cooperation, stating Sept. 7 that “it is in Syria’s interest to enable the agency to corroborate its statements.”

In a Sept. 9 statement to the board, the European Union also expressed concern about Syria’s lack of transparency, saying that, “in the absence of the necessary cooperation with the IAEA the completeness and correctness of Syria’s declarations under its Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement would clearly remain in doubt.” The statement called on Syria to sign and ratify an additional protocol to its safeguards agreement “as soon as possible.”

The 1997 Model Additional Protocol provides the agency with greater inspection authority, improving its ability to detect undeclared nuclear activities.

Along the same lines, Gregory Schulte, who until June served as the U.S. permanent representative to the IAEA, said that the agency’s safeguards authority in Syria is currently inadequate to address the suspicions surrounding that country’s suspected nuclear activities. In a Sept. 2 article on Foreign Policy magazine’s Web site, he said Damascus should adopt an additional protocol and that the IAEA “must be prepared to exercise [its] full authority.”

In that respect, he noted that Syria’s safeguards agreement contains a provision authorizing “special inspections” that has not been implemented. Special inspections are a rarely used IAEA tool granting the agency broader access if it determines that it cannot carry out its responsibilities because the state under investigation is not providing sufficient information.

“The director general’s report suggests that [the] time has come” for the IAEA to invoke the special inspection clause, giving the agency a mandate to inspect undeclared sites, Schulte said.