Syria's Nuclear Challenge

Syria's Nuclear Challenge

Now that the 189 parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty have recommitted themselves to the NPT following the May treaty review conference, it is time to renew efforts to translate words into deeds. The first serious step will come this month as the United Nations Security Council attempts to impose new sanctions to force Iran to halt its dubious nuclear programs.

But the intense focus on Tehran comes at the cost of leaving other nuclear violators under the radar. Syria is the notable case in point. Although it is not the evident threat to nonproliferation that Iran is, Damascus' stonewalling of International Atomic Energy Agency inspections of suspect sites marks an insidious undermining of the NPT. Meeting this week, the IAEA's Board of Governors has an opportunity to reverse Syria's defiance by demanding acceptance of a "special inspection" of suspicious installations. The request is long overdue.

The regime of President Bashar Assad has learned much from its Iranian ally on how to defy international police work to stem the bomb's spread. Following Israel's stunning 2007 strike on its secret nuclear reactor, Damascus not only followed Tehran's obstructionist path to prevent revelation of its reactor site and other suspect facilities, in time it added its own wrinkle to more effectively bar IAEA investigation.

In the immediate aftermath of Jerusalem's attack, Damascus orchestrated a public relations campaign involving all elements of government from Mr. Assad on down, repeatedly denying it had a secret nuclear plant. With Israel (and the United States) remaining mum to discourage Syrian retaliation and the investigative media's failure to authoritatively flesh out what Syria was up to, the IAEA proclaimed its inability to launch an investigation without better information.

Damascus may have thought it could get away with the charade that it had nothing to hide, at least long enough to eliminate evidence of its reactor. To this end, it demolished the remnants of the plant under a tarp to avoid satellite detection, carted away debris and constructed a new building on the bombed site to complete the cover-up.

In April 2008, the United States blew the lid when it released detailed photographs of the North Korean-designed reactor. This prompted IAEA to request access to the site. Having worked hard to remove incriminating evidence, Damascus agreed. However, it failed to anticipate the ability of the agency's detection technology to uncover traces of nuclear material. Syria's attempt to explain away the radioactive evidence as residue from the Israeli munitions proved unsuccessful.

Overcoming momentary embarrassment, the Assad regime dug in its heels: It denied additional IAEA inspections to all suspect sites. By August 2009, Syria told IAEA it was "under no obligation to provide further information concerning the Dair Alzour site [the reactor setting] or other locations because their military nature is not related to any nuclear activities." The agency shot back that "there is no limitation in comprehensive Safeguards Agreements or Agency access to information or locations simply because they may be military related."

The retort marked IAEA's most contentious response to Syrian defiance. Previous reporting and dialogue had attempted to woo Damascus to open up. IAEA told Syria that it had no intention to prejudge: "It cannot be excluded that the building in question was intended for nonnuclear use." The agency promoted additional reassurance: Inspections would "protect sensitive and confidential information."

By September 2009, IAEA reported "no progress" in clarifying outstanding issues. In reports issued in February and May, it stated, "Syria has not cooperated with the Agency since June 2008." At the end of each report, the agency's director general "urged" the Syrians to provide transparency. But Damascus, recognizing a toothless enforcement body, refused to budge.

IAEA cannot allow this standoff to continue. With voluntary Syrian cooperation stalled, there remains one last arrow in its quiver, the "special inspection." IAEA has applied the inspection - a provision adopted by the agency following the 1991 Iraq war to expand authority to suspect activities - only twice. One was in response to the 1992 request by Romania to eliminate discrepancies that occurred under Nicolae Ceausescu's regime. The other, in 1993, to ferret out North Korea's nuclear activities. Pyongyang's refusal to comply with the inspection compelled the Board of Governors to refer the North to the Security Council for action.

Syria is a far less ambitious and resourceful state than Iran. If the international community permits such a relatively weak nation to thumb its nose at international safeguards, it will open a proliferation Pandora's box. The time has come for the IAEA Board of Governors to take a stand. During its weeklong meeting that commenced Monday, it must act: Call Damascus to accept unfettered special inspections or be put before the Security Council for the application of sanctions.

Bennett Ramberg has served as a foreign-policy analyst and/or consultant to the Department of State, U.S. Senate, Nuclear Control Institute, Henry L. Stimson Center, Global Green and Committee to Bridge the Gap.

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