VIENNA The U.N. nuclear watchdog signaled on Monday it wanted to use its "special inspection" powers more often, something the United States has suggested could be invoked in the case of Syria.
The International Atomic Energy Agency last resorted to such a prerogative in 1993 in North Korea, which still withheld access and later developed nuclear bomb capacity in secret.
"It is a normal tool that we should be able to use more frequently," Herman Nackaerts, the IAEA's deputy director general in charge of inspections, told a news conference.
He said the U.N. body wanted to look at ways to "lower the threshold" for deploying such missions but he declined to discuss specific states whose activities it is probing.
Washington's envoy to the IAEA said earlier this year a "number of countries" were beginning to ask whether it was time to invoke the special inspection tool to give the IAEA the authority to look anywhere necessary in Syria at short notice.
It has been over two years since the IAEA was allowed to visit a desert site in Syria where secret nuclear activity may have taken place before it was bombed by Israel in 2007.
U.S. intelligence reports have said it was a nascent North Korean-designed reactor geared to produce bomb fuel. Syria, an ally of Iran, denies ever having an atomic bomb programme.
But Damascus is unlikely to agree to a special inspection and diplomats and analysts believe the IAEA will refrain from escalating the dispute at a time of rising tension with Iran, which the West suspects of seeking nuclear weapons.
If Syria were to reject a possible request for such an inspection, the IAEA board could vote to refer the issue to the U.N. Security Council, as it did with Iran four years ago.
In September, an IAEA report said Syria's refusal to allow U.N. inspectors access to the site, known as Dair Alzour, was endangering potential evidence in the investigation.
Nackaerts' predecessor, Olli Heinonen, suggested in an interview with an Israeli newspaper published last month he believed a special inspection was merited for Syria.
"If it was a nuclear reactor, it would have been...the first time that an IAEA member state was constructing a plutonium reactor on such a large scale," he told Israel's Haaretz daily.
Nackaerts said the IAEA wanted to see if special inspections could become more of a routine tool.
"This type of inspection has become very difficult to use and so the threshold has become very high," he said.
"I think we should change that so that we don't necessarily have to have a major issue of non-compliance (with IAEA rules) before we can start thinking of using it."
Syria's case has been overshadowed by the more high-profile dispute over Iran's nuclear activity. Tehran rejects Western accusations its programme has military aims.
One important difference between the two, diplomats say, is that Iran's work is still going on while the Syrian site was destroyed.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)