VIENNA Syria has promised to cooperate with a U.N. nuclear inquiry into a suspected reactor site bombed by Israel in 2007, an apparent last-minute bid by Damascus to derail a Western push to report it to the U.N. Security Council.
Western diplomats made clear they saw it as a tactical move ahead of a board meeting next week of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which was expected to condemn Syrian stonewalling of the IAEA probe into the desert site known as Dair Alzour.
They stressed that Syria's offer, in a letter to IAEA chief Yukiya Amano, failed to specify whether it would now grant access to Dair Alzour and linked locations after repeatedly refusing such requests for nearly three years.
The United States has circulated a draft board resolution that would report the "non-compliance" of Syria -- which is also facing Western sanctions over a crackdown on pro-democracy unrest in the country -- to the U.N. Security Council.
But some said the Syrian initiative could make countries like Russia and China less willing to back the U.S.-led effort to pile pressure on the Arab state for failing to cooperate with the U.N. nuclear watchdog.
One European envoy said, "those countries which maybe were not so convinced about the idea to send it to the Security Council will now of course be even more hesitant."
"It will make it more difficult, there is no question about that," one senior diplomat from a developing country said about the Syrian initiative. "It is a very smart move."
U.S. intelligence reports had said Dair Alzour was a nascent, North Korean-designed reactor intended to produce plutonium for atomic bombs before it was wrecked by Israel.
Damascus insisted Dair Alzour was a military, non-nuclear complex and had until now rebuffed IAEA demands for follow-up access to the site after a one-off inspection in 2008.
However, a May 24 report by the IAEA said the site was "very likely" to have been a reactor.
The United States and its European allies were set to seize on the report's finding to lobby for a resolution by the agency's 35-nation board, meeting on June 6-10 in Vienna, to send the Syrian file to the Security Council in New York.
NO MORE STONEWALLING?
The IAEA board has the power to refer countries to the Security Council if they are judged to have violated global non-proliferation rules by engaging in covert nuclear work.
It reported Iran to the Security Council in 2006 over its failure to dispel suspicions that it was trying to develop nuclear weapons. Tehran has since been hit with four rounds of U.N. sanctions over its refusal to curb sensitive nuclear work.
Syria, an ally of Iran, denies harboring a nuclear weapons program and says the IAEA should focus on Israel instead because of its undeclared nuclear arsenal.
The United States signaled its determination to press ahead with its proposed resolution, despite the new Syrian offer.
"We are aware that the Syrian government has sent a letter to the IAEA regarding the agency's long-standing requests for full Syrian cooperation," Robert Wood, deputy head of the U.S. mission, wrote in a letter to other board members.
"Such cooperation indeed would be welcome, but would not have any bearing on the finding of non-compliance or the board's responsibilities with regard to that finding."
In February, Syria's foreign minister wrote to Amano saying his country "would continue to work with the agency to resolve all outstanding technical issues." But this was not followed by concrete action on Dair Alzour and failed to end the stalemate.
Syria's latest letter, one Western diplomat said, only "pledges cooperation in an attempt to stave off a resolution and Security Council referral. Syria has stonewalled the IAEA for three years, and this is more of the same."
(Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton)