Under pressure, Syria offers nuclear cooperation

Reuters News
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Posted: May 30, 2011 7:38 AM
Under pressure, Syria offers nuclear cooperation

By Fredrik Dahl

VIENNA (Reuters) - Syria, in a policy reversal, has offered to cooperate fully with the U.N. atomic agency, which wants to inspect a suspected nuclear reactor site that was bombed by Israeli warplanes in 2007, diplomats said.

The move comes as Western nations were pushing to report Syria to the U.N. Security Council for its uncooperative stance.

Damascus had insisted the site known as Dair Alzour was a military, non-nuclear complex before it was destroyed in 2007.

But that assertion by Syria -- which is also facing Western sanctions over a violent crackdown on pro-democracy unrest in the country -- was rejected in an IAEA report on May 24 which said Dair Alzour was "very likely" to have been a reactor.

U.S. intelligence reports said the desert site was a nascent, North Korean-designed reactor intended to produce plutonium for atomic bombs.

Damascus has rebuffed repeated requests by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for follow-up access to the site after a one-off inspection in 2008.

The United States and its European allies were expected to seize on the IAEA report's finding to lobby for a resolution by the agency's 35-nation board, meeting on June 6-10 in Vienna, to send the Syrian file to the Security Council in New York.

In a move that could complicate this, Syria offered in a letter to IAEA chief Yukiya Amano late last week to fully cooperate with the agency to resolve outstanding issues related to Dair Alzour, diplomats said.

The promise may make some non-Western IAEA board members more reluctant about taking the issue to New York now.

"It will make it more difficult, there is no question about that," one senior diplomat from a developing country said. "It is a very smart move."

But a Western envoy said he expected the letter to have "close to zero impact" on the board's decision, saying it was an apparent last-minute attempt by Syria to undermine support for a vote to refer it to the Security Council.

"I think the letter will be seen, except by very close friends of Syria, as just going through the motions," he said.

"IN THE PAST"

Another Western diplomat said Syria's letter only "pledges cooperation in an attempt to stave off a resolution and Security Council referral. Syria has stonewalled the IAEA for three years, and this is more of the same."

The board has the power to refer countries to the Security Council if they are judged to have violated global non-proliferation rules by engaging in covert nuclear work.

It reported Iran to the Security Council in 2006 over its failure to dispel suspicions that it was trying to develop nuclear weapons. Tehran has since been hit with four rounds of U.N. sanctions over its refusal to curb sensitive nuclear work.

Syria, an ally of Iran, denies harboring a nuclear weapons program and says the IAEA should focus on Israel instead because of its undeclared nuclear arsenal.

Western diplomats said their approach to the Syrian nuclear issue was not linked to anti-government protests inside the country, saying Damascus had long failed to cooperate over Dair Alzour and it was now time to act.

But some non-Western members of the IAEA board have expressed doubt about taking strong action against Syria, saying that whatever happened at Dair Alzour was now history.

The new Syrian letter may further strengthen this view.

"Is it really something which you need to send to the Security Council, something that has happened in the past?" said the developing country diplomat.

(Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton)