Ex-IAEA official adds weight to Syria atom suspicion

VIENNA Tue May 17, 2011 10:10am EDT

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VIENNA (Reuters) - Satellite images and other information indicate Syria was building a covert atomic reactor when Israel bombed the site in 2007, a former senior U.N. nuclear inspector said on Tuesday.

Olli Heinonen, who stepped down as deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 2010, made his remarks at a time when some argue that Damascus may soon be referred to the U.N. Security Council over the issue.

Now a senior fellow at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, he said "satellite imagery, procurement, and infrastructure information tend to point (in the) direction that the destroyed building at Dair Alzour was, indeed, a nuclear reactor at an advanced state of construction."

In an email to Reuters, he said, however, that Syria had not "engaged in any substantial discussion" about Dair Alzour.

Israeli warplanes wrecked the desert site in September 2007 and Syria has allowed IAEA investigators to visit it only once, in June 2008, rejecting repeated requests for further visits.

Western diplomats expect the Vienna-based IAEA to use stronger language in its next quarterly report on Syria which is due later this month, possibly by saying it believes the facility was a reactor under construction.

The United States and its European allies are expected to seize on this finding to push for a decision at the June 6-10 meeting of the IAEA's governing board to send the file to the U.N. Security Council -- a move last used against Iran in 2006.

The move would reflect growing frustration in the West over Syria's stonewalling of an IAEA probe into Dair Alzour, which U.S. intelligence reports said was a nascent North Korean-designed reactor intended to make bomb fuel.

Preparations for a possible U.S.-led move by the IAEA's 35-nation governing board coincide with a Syrian crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations. Western diplomats in Vienna insist the two issues are separate.

"There is a general feeling that there has been a stalemate in the Syrian case for too long and therefore something has to be done," one European ambassador accredited to the IAEA said.

"It is a dramatic step," he said about the possibility that the Syria nuclear case would be handed over to the Security Council, which may debate the issue or take other action.

Syria, an ally of Iran, denies ever having a nuclear weapons program. It has suggested uranium traces uncovered at Dair Alzour after a one-off IAEA visit came with Israeli munitions used in the attack. The agency has dismissed this as unlikely.

SOME COUNTRIES SCEPTICAL

Diplomats said the IAEA -- which in earlier reports said there were indications nuclear activity may have taken place at Dair Alzour -- was unlikely to make a definitive, final assessment due to a lack of further access to the site.

"They can say that according to everything they know there is a high probability, or that they assume, it was a nuclear reactor," one Western official said.

Western diplomats say Syria's refusal to allow U.N. inspectors follow-up access to Dair Alzour risks undermining the IAEA and the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that underpins its work to prevent the spread of atom bombs, if nothing is done.

The board has the power to refer countries to the Security Council if they are judged to have violated IAEA rules designed to make sure atom technology is not diverted for military aims.

A majority vote in favor would be needed for this step.

"I think it will be feasible to get a decision to refer the issue to the Security Council," the Western official said.

The European ambassador said some countries on the IAEA board may not back such a decision. He expected Russia and China, which last month resisted a Security Council condemnation of Syria's clampdown on demonstrators, to abstain in any vote.

One developing country diplomat said that whatever Syria did at Dair Alzour it was now in the past, unlike the Iran case.

"To send it to the Security Council it has to be a threat to international peace and security," said the diplomat. "Do you have any proof they are doing it right now?"

(Editing by Maria Golovnina)

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