Western push on Syria may spark divisive IAEA debate
VIENNA (Reuters) - Western states are pressing ahead with a drive to report Syria to the U.N. Security Council over suspected nuclear activity, despite misgivings among some other countries and a last-ditch bid by Damascus to thwart the move.
Next week the 35-nation governing board of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is set to debate a U.S.-led push to refer Syria to the council in New York for stonewalling for three years an IAEA probe into a site bombed by Israel in 2007.
U.S. intelligence reports have said Dair Alzour was a nascent, North Korean-designed reactor intended to produce plutonium for atomic bombs before it was wrecked.
The IAEA gave independent backing to the U.S. allegation in a report last week which said the desert complex was "very likely" to have been a reactor, setting the scene for possible action by the agency's board at a June 6-10 meeting in Vienna.
The United States has circulated a draft resolution that would report the "non-compliance" of Syria -- which is also facing Western sanctions over a crackdown on pro-democracy unrest in the Arab state -- to the U.N. Security Council.
"I'm pretty confident that, from what we are hearing, we are in good shape for the board to make that decision," a senior Western diplomat said Wednesday.
But the diplomat and others backing the referral acknowledged a vote would be required and it was unclear how Russia and China -- which in April resisted a Security Council condemnation of Syria's clampdown on protests -- would act.
Diplomats from some non-Western board members made clear they were doubtful about sending the Syria file to New York, saying that whatever happened at Dair Alzour was now history.
Their skepticism may have been strengthened by a last-minute Syrian offer, in a letter to IAEA chief Yukiya Amano late last week, of full cooperation to resolve issues related to Dair Alzour after rebuffing agency demands for nearly three years.
"There are a lot of countries that have doubts about the resolution and its wording," said one diplomat from a member state of the Non-Aligned Movement, which groups about 118 developing and other countries from Asia, Africa and elsewhere.
"The resolution can win on the numbers but it will be divisive."
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.
Western envoys argued it was important for the board to act in the Syrian case as it would also send a warning signal to other countries not to engage in any covert atomic activity.
"If we had allowed the Syria dossier simply to go on and on ... that might have carried quite a serious risk of showing other countries a pattern by which they could cheat on the agency and get away with it," the senior Western diplomat said.
"It is not a successful choice to choose not to cooperate with the agency, it is not a recipe for success," he added.
Another Western diplomat stressed that Syria's new offer failed to specify whether it would now grant prompt access to Dair Alzour, in what would amount to a sudden policy U-turn.
If Damascus provided a concrete plan of cooperation before the board meeting, that might influence and soften the wording of the resolution, possibly by giving the Syrians more time to show it was a sincere offer, the diplomat added.
(Editing by Alistair Lyon)