VIENNA (Reuters) - The U.N. atomic agency approved a contested Syrian bid for nuclear aid on Wednesday, overcoming U.S.-led resistance to the project while Damascus is under investigation for covert activity that could lead to atom bombs.
The United States, Canada and Australia mounted last minute objections to a compromise deal on the project but finally joined a consensus in favor since they could not have won if they forced a rare vote by International Atomic Energy Agency governors, diplomats in the closed meeting said.
Syria’s request for technical aid in planning a nuclear power plant, a rubber-stamp matter for many IAEA member nations, caused a political tug-of-war after an agency report suggesting Damascus might have tried to build a nuclear reactor in secret.
The November 19 report said a Syrian building demolished in an Israeli air raid last year bore similarities to a nuclear reactor and uranium particles, possibly remnants of pre-enriched nuclear fuel, had been found in the area.
But it cautioned that the findings, based on U.S. satellite intelligence and one on-site IAEA inspection, were preliminary and more investigation, as well as Syrian documentation to prove its denials of illicit work, were essential to draw conclusions.
Major Western nations wanted the project axed, saying it would be “totally inappropriate” as long as Syria was being investigated over fears it tried to build a reactor with North Korean help designed to produce plutonium for atomic bombs.
Russia, China and developing states, influentially backed by IAEA Director Mohamed ElBaradei, countered that there was no legal basis for denying a country aid for civilian atomic energy unless proliferation accusations were proven.
The text of a compromise adopted by the IAEA board of governors said the project, to be carried out from 2009 to 2011, would be under close monitoring with extra care taken to ensure equipment provided could not be diverted to military uses.
It also provided for governors to be able to reconsider the Syria study in future if the inquiry found Damascus to be in “non-compliance” with safeguard rules, as North Korea and Iran were previously, which led to cut-offs of IAEA aid.
An official chairman’s summary of the three-day debate noted the “strong reservations” of some states about granting Syria atomic benefits before it opened up fully to IAEA investigation.
“(We) agreed to the project based on the understanding that in light of further developments, (we) have the right to revisit the issue pursuant to the (IAEA) statute,” it said, meaning the project could be killed if a nuclear cover-up was confirmed.
“We’ve made our point — this Syrian project is now under the spotlight and will remain under the spotlight,” said a senior Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Other diplomats said the outcome was a victory for ElBaradei and Syria and a slap in the face of the United States, which has skirmished with ElBaradei for years over what it sees as his “soft” attitude toward suspected proliferators such as Iran.
“The U.S. had to back down while ElBaradei, Syria and international law prevailed, the principle that any party is innocent until proven guilty,” said one of those diplomats.
The disputed $350,000 project is a “technical and economic feasibility and site selection” study for a civilian nuclear power station. Funding, as for all IAEA aid projects, would come mainly from Western member states of the IAEA.
The decision by the board’s technical aid committee will be ratified at a governors plenary meeting that begins on Thursday.
The plenary will see a chorus of Western calls on Syria to cooperate fully with IAEA investigators and for Iran to stop stonewalling an agency probe into intelligence reports that it carried out secret design work on atom bombs. It denies this.
Editing by Dominic Evans