The International Atomic Energy Agency is setting the stage for potential U.N. Security Council action against Syria as the organization prepares a report assessing that a Syrian target bombed by Israeli warplanes was likely a secretly built nuclear reactor meant to produce plutonium, diplomats say.
Such a conclusion would back intelligence produced by Israel and the United States. Syria says the nearly finished building had no nuclear uses. It has repeatedly turned down IAEA requests to revisit the site after allowing an initial 2008 inspection that found evidence of possible nuclear activities.
In interviews over the past week, three diplomats and a senior U.N. official said such an assessment _ drawn up by IAEA chief Yukiya Amano _ would be the basis of a Western-sponsored resolution at a meeting of the 35-nation IAEA board that condemns Syria's refusal to cooperate with the agency and sends the issue to the U.N. Security Council. They said reporting Syria to the council would likely come as early as a June board meeting and no later than in November.
All spoke on condition of anonymity in exchange for discussing confidential information.
In an apparent slip of the tongue that may have disclosed his plans, Amano said for the first time Thursday that the bombed site was a nearly finished nuclear reactor. He spoke in taped comments at a news conference and later to The Associated Press.
Suggesting that Amano had erred in making such comments publicly, the IAEA later put out a statement that "he did not say that the IAEA had reached the conclusion that the site was definitely a nuclear reactor."
The rollback reflected previous, more circumspect, IAEA language. In a February report, Amano said only that features of the bombed structure were "similar to what may be found at nuclear reactor sites."
Once formally involved, the council has options ranging from doing nothing to passing its own resolutions demanding compliance with the IAEA, followed by sanctions to enforce such demands. This has been the scenario for Iran, under four sets of U.N. sanctions for ignoring council demands to stop activities that could be used to build nuclear arms and to cooperate with an IAEA probe of experiments that could be used to develop such weapons.
The greatest uncertainty, said one of the diplomats, is Syria's current unrest, which could delay or change Western plans to force a resolution and referral to the U.N. Security Council. Since the public uprising in Syria began in mid-March, inspired by revolts across the Arab world, hundreds of people have been killed nationwide, activists say.
Syria sanctions are unlikely. While Tehran continues with its nuclear program, intelligence services believe that the Israeli bombing of the Al Kibar site in Syria effectively ended its covert activities. Also, the diplomats said, forcing the issue with Syria would detract council attention from Iran, the main focus of nuclear concern, and could muddy efforts to focus on an end of Syria's bloody crackdown on its grass-roots pro-democracy movement.
Still, Security Council involvement carries both symbolic weight and opens the path for concrete action later, should new evidence be found.
A U.S. official called any referral to the council significant, while the diplomats _ all from IAEA board member nations _ said that beyond sending a signal to Syria that defying the IAEA carries a price tag, reporting it to the council also would be a rehearsal for more action against Iran.
They said that after more than four years of gridlock in IAEA attempts to investigate Iran's alleged experiments geared toward developing nuclear arms, Amano also was planning to draw up an assessment saying that such experiments were likely conducted, perhaps by the end of the year.
That, in turn, would open the path for renewed IAEA referral of Iran to the Security Council and lead to potential tightening of existing sanctions or a new set of U.N. penalties, the diplomats said.
One said assessments such as ones for Syria and Iran were rare, if not unprecedented, in the IAEA's history and reflected the agency's frustration with both nation's refusal to cooperate.
Beyond Iran, only five other nations _ Saddam Hussein's Iraq, North Korea, Israel, Libya and Romania _ have been reported to the U.N. Security Council by the IAEA in its 54-year history.
Like Syria, neither Libya nor Romania had a live secret nuclear program at the time they were referred. Libya had voluntarily disclosed its attempts to develop nuclear arms and agreed to dismantle its program.
Romania was reported after the IAEA _ the U.N. nuclear watchdog on proliferation _ found a small amount of plutonium in a lab set up under the nation's previous communist regime.
Israel was reported for its 1981 attack on an Iraqi nuclear reactor that it suspected was being used to develop weapons _ a claim the IAEA said was false.
Along with Iran, Syria denies allegations of any interest in developing nuclear arms. But its refusal to allow IAEA inspectors new access to the bombed desert site has heightened suspicions that it had something to hide along with its decision to level the structure that was destroyed by Israel and later to build over it.
Drawing on the 2008 visit to Syria by its inspectors, the IAEA determined that the destroyed building's size and structure fit specifications that a reactor would have had. It also found graphite and natural uranium particles that could be linked to nuclear use of the structure.