LONDON (Reuters) - The U.S. envoy to the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog said on Tuesday it should consider pressing for a mandatory special inspection in Syria to resolve allegations of covert atomic activity.
A confidential International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report, obtained by Reuters in May, said Syria had revealed some details of past nuclear experiments to U.N. inspectors. But it was still blocking access to a desert site where secret atomic activity may have taken place.
U.S. intelligence reports said the desert site, bombed to rubble by Israel in 2007, had been a North Korean-designed nuclear reactor under construction, geared for atomic bomb fuel.
Syria allowed the IAEA to inspect the site, known as either al-Kibar or Dair Alzour, in June 2008 but has not allowed the agency to revisit it since then.
Glyn Davies, the U.S. envoy to the IAEA, said a “number of countries” were beginning to ask whether it was time to invoke the IAEA’s “special inspection” mechanism.
“Syria...would love to just stave off any serious action to get to the bottom of what they were doing at al-Kibar,” he told reporters in London.
“Our position is we are not going to postpone this indefinitely, we can’t. The agency needs to do its duty and it needs to get answers to these questions. A special inspection is one of the tools that is available, so that’s something that needs to be considered,” he said.
The IAEA lacks legal means to get Syria to open up because the country’s basic safeguards treaty covers only its one declared atomic facility, an old research reactor.
Special inspections give IAEA inspectors the authority to look anywhere at short notice in a member state, beyond declared nuclear plants.
The IAEA last resorted to special inspection powers in 1993 in North Korea, which still withheld access and later developed nuclear bomb capacity in secret.
If Syria failed to comply with an IAEA request for a special inspection, the agency’s Board of Governors could find Syria “in non-compliance” with its safeguards accord, experts say.
Davies said the IAEA might look at a special inspection for Syria this year but he cautioned against raising too many issues at once, saying Iran was “the greatest threat at the moment.”
The U.N. Security Council, the United States and the European Union imposed new sanctions on Iran in recent months over its nuclear program, which Iran says is peaceful but that the West suspects is aimed at developing a nuclear bomb.
Iran backed out of a tentative plan brokered by the IAEA and world powers in October under which it would ship some low-enriched uranium abroad in return for medical reactor fuel. Tehran showed revived interest in the deal in May after talks with Turkey and Brazil.
IAEA chief Yukiya Amano said in Singapore on Monday that talks to revive the plan could start within months. [nSGE6710II]
Davies said there was a proposal at the IAEA in Vienna for a preparatory “organizational meeting” to see if there was a basis for moving forward on the medical reactor fuel plan. But a date for this meeting might not be set for several weeks, he said.
He said Washington wanted answers to a series of questions about Tehran’s position on the proposed fuel swap.
Davies suggested that Turkey, and perhaps also Brazil, could have a role to play at some stage of the negotiations.
(Additional reporting by Sylvia Westall in Vienna)
Editing by Angus MacSwan