* Israel bombed suspected Syrian reactor in 2007
* But Syria may still hold uranium to fuel reactor - experts
* Any uranium stockpile may be of interest to Iran
* Iran, Syria deny allegations of nuclear weapons aims
By Fredrik Dahl and Dan Williams
VIENNA/JERUSALEM, Jan 10 Western and Israeli
security experts suspect Syria may have tonnes of unenriched
uranium in storage and that any such stockpile could potentially
be of interest to its ally Iran for use in Tehran's own disputed
They say natural uranium could have been acquired by the
Arab state years ago to fuel a suspected nuclear reactor under
construction that was bombed by Israel in 2007.
U.S. intelligence reports at the time said the site in
Syria's desert Deir al-Zor region was a nascent, North
Korean-designed reactor designed to produce plutonium for atomic
Syria, ravaged by a war the United Nations says has killed
60,000 people, has denied accusations of a clandestine nuclear
programme. Its envoy in Vienna, where the U.N. nuclear watchdog
is based, was not available for comment on Friday.
"Someplace there has got to be an inventory of fuel for the
reactor. It doesn't make sense to have a nuclear installation, a
nuclear reactor, without any fuel," proliferation expert Mark
Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment think tank said.
But, he added, "to my knowledge there hasn't been any
substantiated accounts identifying where that material may be
located." It would likely have come from North Korea, he said.
Even if Syria did have such a stockpile, it would not be
usable for nuclear weapons in its present form, a fact that
makes it less of a pressing concern for the West than fears that
government forces may use chemical arms against their foes.
The Financial Times newspaper said this week Syria may hold
up to 50 tonnes of unenriched, or natural, uranium - material
which can fuel atomic power plants and also provide the
explosive core of nuclear bombs, but only if refined to a high
Some government officials have raised concerns that Iran
might try to seize it, the FT said, without identifying them.
Though such a quantity in theory could yield material for
several atom bombs, it would first have to be enriched much
further, from 0.7 percent of the fissile isotope in natural
uranium to 90 percent, in a technically complicated process.
Iran, which denies Western accusations of atomic bomb
ambitions, has said its mines can supply the raw uranium needed
for its nuclear programme and that it has no shortage problems.
The U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which
for several years has been seeking access to the destroyed Deir
al-Zor site as well as three other locations that may be linked
to it, declined to comment on the FT report.
A recently retired Israeli security official said he
believed Syria was keeping uranium at a site near Damascus, one
of the places the IAEA wants to inspect, but he did not say what
he based this on.
The former Israeli official said rebels fighting Syrian
President Bashar al-Assad, who now control a crescent of suburbs
on the outskirts of the capital, may get hold of the stockpile
and make its existence public.
"Then it would put paid to the Syrians' claims that they
never had a reactor in the first place," he said.
Another possibility was that Syria, "knowing the material is
no longer secured, could ship it out to Iran, which is certainly
in need of more uranium for its own nuclear plans," the former
Israeli official, who declined to be named, added.
But a veteran Israeli intelligence analyst who now works as
a government adviser said the figure of 50 tonnes of uranium
cited by the Financial Times was "not at all familiar to me".
A Western diplomat said there had been speculation about
possible uranium - perhaps in the form of natural uranium metal
to fuel a reactor - in Syria because of the destroyed Deir
al-Zor site but that he knew of no specific details.
"It is plausible. But as far as I know no one has ever had
any idea where the material is," he said, adding it would not be
easy to ship large quantities to Iran without detection.
Syria says Deir al-Zor was a conventional military facility
but the IAEA concluded in May 2011 that it was "very likely" to
have been a reactor that should have been declared to its
If there is a stockpile of uranium in Syria, it would be of
use for Iran as it faces a potential shortage, said Mark
Fitzpatrick, a proliferation expert at the International
Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) think-tank.
"Syria has been getting quite a bit of help from Iran. This
would have been one means of repaying them," he said. "There is
evidence that Iran is looking around the world for uranium."
Israel, which is widely believed to have the Middle East's
only nuclear arsenal, and Western powers accuse Iran of seeking
to develop a capability to make atomic bombs.
The Islamic state says its programme to refine uranium is
solely intended for peaceful energy and medical purposes.
Some Western analysts have said Iran may be close to
exhausting its supply of raw uranium, known as "yellow cake",
although IAEA reports suggest it still has plenty of natural
uranium gas to use for its enrichment work.
"If there is an undeclared inventory of 50 tonnes of uranium
then, if I were Assad, I would want to spirit it out of there
and the most likely place would be Iran," Hibbs said.