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Analysis: U.N. nuclear agency faces dilemma over Syria

VIENNA (Reuters) - The U.N. nuclear agency says Syria is stonewalling its investigation into suspected atomic activity, but it may hold back from escalating the dispute to avoid opening a new front at a time of rising tension with Iran.

It has been more than two years since Syria allowed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to inspect the Dair Alzour desert site, where secret nuclear work may have taken place before it was bombed to rubble by Israel in 2007.

U.S. intelligence reports said it was a nascent North Korean-designed nuclear reactor intended to produce bomb fuel. Syria, like its ally Iran, denies having an atomic weapons programme.

Washington has suggested the Vienna-based U.N. agency could invoke its “special inspection” mechanism to give it the authority to look anywhere in Syria at short notice.

Damascus would probably refuse such a demand and IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano would then have to choose between raising the stakes further or, in effect, accepting his office can do little more to make an unwilling member state cooperate.

Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace referred in a report to inspections and other means used by the agency to make sure countries do not acquire atom bombs.

“Syria is winning its battle with the IAEA over safeguards compliance,” he said.

“Fearing a confrontation, Amano is not willing to request from Damascus a special inspection to probe allegations raised by Western states and Israel that Syria built a clandestine reactor.”

URANIUM TRACES

In its latest report on Syria in September, the IAEA said the country’s refusal to allow U.N. inspectors access to the area was endangering potential evidence in the investigation.

Earlier this year, it gave some weight to suspicions of illicit atomic activity by saying uranium traces found in a visit by inspectors in 2008 pointed to nuclear-related activity.

In a debate in the IAEA’s 35-nation board last month, U.S. ambassador Glyn Davies said Washington would back the agency’s use of all tools at its disposal to advance the investigation.

Syrian envoy Mohammed Badi Khattab said the IAEA did not need to go back to Dair Alzour because it already had ample proof it was a non-nuclear military site.

Syria has previously suggested uranium particles found at the site came from Israeli weapons used in the strike or were dropped from the air, an assertion dismissed by the West.

The Syrian case has been overshadowed by a more high-profile dispute over Iran’s nuclear programme, which the West fears is aimed at making bombs and Tehran says is for producing electricity.

One important difference between the two, diplomats say, is that Iran’s work is still going on while the Syrian site was destroyed.

The IAEA last resorted to special inspection powers in 1993 in North Korea, which still withheld access and later developed nuclear bomb capability in secret.

SPECIAL INSPECTION

Shannon Kile of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) said the evidence raised questions about whether Syria was breaking legally-binding commitments.

“It seems to me that this is a case which really calls out for a special inspection,” he said.

Any such move may anger Damascus, whose relations with Washington improved after Barack Obama took office in 2009.

If Syria were to reject a possible special inspection request, the IAEA board could vote to refer the issue to the U.N. Security Council, as it did with Iran four years ago.

This seems unlikely in the near future and Syria may be backed by board members from developing countries, but Western states are expected to keep up the pressure.

“We’re likely to see a continued stalemate, with associated low-level tension at the (IAEA) board, for some time to come,” said Andreas Persbo, Executive Director of the Verification Research, Training and Information Center (VERTIC) in London.

Syria has allowed inspectors to visit an old research reactor in Damascus where they have been checking whether there is a link with Dair Alzour after discovering unexplained particles of processed uranium at both.

Hibbs said that, as time passed, it would be easier to hide any non-declared nuclear activities. “The U.S. and other Western states are getting increasingly concerned that time is running out on the IAEA in Syria.”

Kile said it would be troubling if North Korea was supplying nuclear weapon-relevant technology to a country without such arms. “I think that for many...is really a red line,” he said.

Editing by Andrew Dobbie

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