Syria's Nuclear TransgressionsIsrael destroyed a building in the Syrian desert nearly four years ago that both the United States and Israel argue was a covert nuclear reactor designed to produce plutonium. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) last month shared this assessment, countering assertions by Syria.

When the IAEA’s main decision-making body, the board of governors, meets in Vienna this week, Syria’s nuclear activities will be front and center. In a Q&A, Mark Hibbs says the board will likely vote in favor of a resolution—prepared by a group of Western nations, including the United States—condemning Syria’s failure to cooperate with the IAEA’s probe of the allegation and may declare Syria out of compliance with its bilateral safeguards agreement with the IAEA and the nonproliferation treaty. Citing Syria for noncompliance would bring the matter to the attention of the United Nations Security Council and open the door to possible future sanctions. But sanctions in the near term are unlikely. 


Why did the IAEA take so long to conclude that the facility bombed by Israeli warplanes was a nuclear reactor?

For the first six months after the Israeli attack in September 2007 the IAEA started investigating the allegations without any significant cooperation from either Israel or the United States—the two states that collected most of the intelligence justifying Israeli’s military strike. Before the bombing, neither the United States nor Israel informed the IAEA about what it knew because they feared that if the agency was informed and brought the matter to Syria’s attention, Damascus would preempt an attack on the reactor by declaring the facility to the IAEA.
Beginning in August 2009, the IAEA noted in every quarterly report to the board of governors that Syria was not cooperating with its investigation. During this period, member states—and particularly the United States—provided the IAEA with intelligence findings supporting the claim that the bombed facility, built at a site called Dair Alzour beginning in 2001 and virtually completed in 2007, was indeed a reactor. On the basis of this information, the IAEA told the board last month that in its view the destroyed facility at Dair Alzour was very likely a reactor.

Are the claims that the IAEA has been dithering in its response true?

Not really. Right from the outset, when news reports first asserted that Israel had attacked a clandestine nuclear facility in Syria, virtually all IAEA member states—including the United States and Israel—were in no hurry to press Syria for a clarification. Many IAEA member states felt that the matter wasn’t urgent since the installation had been destroyed. The United States, Israel, and European states acted with caution because they sought to “flip” Syria and terminate its long-standing alliance with Iran. And Israel had no interest in drawing attention to its aggressive act against a regime it was trying to negotiate with.
When President Obama took office in 2009, he reassessed the Syria nuclear issue and restrained U.S. officials who sought to increase the pressure on Syria in Vienna, in the interest of bettering bilateral ties with Damascus. It’s also important to note that many nations on the IAEA board were reluctant to bring the matter to a dramatic head so that pressure wasn’t taken off Iran. Unlike Syria’s nuclear program, which may have been nipped in the bud by the Israeli attack, the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program continues to grow. When Yukiya Amano succeeded Mohamed ElBaradei as head of the IAEA in late 2009, he chose to give Syria time to respond to the U.S. and Israeli charge before drawing an independent conclusion.

How will the governors respond now that the IAEA has told the board that it broadly shares the American conclusion about the complex at Dair Alzour?

The board meeting will actually begin with less controversial topics—a review of the IAEA’s technical cooperation program and preparations for an upcoming international conference on the Fukushima nuclear accident—and is likely to get around to the IAEA’s Syria dossier on Wednesday, June 8. When the issues comes up, a group of largely Western states, including the United States, will press for a vote on a resolution that is now being drafted.
Draft language originally proposed by the United States cited Syria for noncompliance with its safeguards obligations for having failed to cooperate with the IAEA’s investigation of Dair Alzour. Other board members would be more comfortable with a resolution that—as in the case of Iran in 2006—implied that the board would, in a follow-on resolution, refer Syria to the Security Council for noncompliance if it did not immediately and fully cooperate with the IAEA.
To pass, the resolution requires a simple majority in favor. On the eve of the board meeting, enough board members are prepared to support a noncompliance resolution for it to succeed.
For several months, the United States has been urging board members to join it in launching a resolution to condemn Syria. But at the last board meeting in March, many states—including a number of U.S. allies in Europe—objected, feeling that it was still premature.
This time, the United States and enough other states are prepared to push the resolution through to a vote. In doing so, they will argue that Syrian President Assad has become increasingly threatened and isolated by popular domestic unrest. Diplomats favoring the resolution are telling reluctant board members—Russia, China, some developing countries, and Arab states—that “it is time to wipe the slate clean” on the IAEA’s Syrian file and report the matter to the Security Council.

What would the Security Council do?

The IAEA statute requires that the board of governors “shall report any [safeguards] noncompliance to the Security Council and General Assembly of the United Nations.” But it doesn’t require the Security Council or the General Assembly to take any actions.
In 2006, the Security Council responded to an IAEA board referral of noncompliance by Iran by imposing financial and nuclear trade sanctions on Iran. But if the IAEA board reports Syria to the Security Council for noncompliance, it is very likely that Russia and China would veto any sanctions drive launched by other states. Indeed, Syria’s letter to the IAEA in late May pledging full cooperation with the IAEA will almost guarantee that, if the board cites Syria for noncompliance this week, the Security Council will not take any immediate action.

The IAEA board traditionally makes decisions by consensus. Are there any worries that the absence of consensus in reporting Syria to the Security Council would detract from its legitimacy?

The consensus rule for nearly all decision making on the board began breaking down on key issues during the last decade of former IAEA director general Mohamed ElBaradei’s tenure. The loss of consensus can be attributed to three factors: the end of the Cold War and the rise of multipolarity; acrimony between ElBaradei and the U.S. administration under President George W. Bush; and the emergence of the Non-Aligned Movement in UN politics in the last decade.
Many states routinely deplore the erosion of consensus, but some IAEA governors argue that under Amano—whose 2009 election divided board members along North-South lines—the board is increasingly ready and willing to take non-consensual decisions on contentious issues if the absence of consensus means that no action will be taken.
Still, the United States and other Western states drafting the resolution for this week’s board meeting know that they will have a stronger case if consensus is attained. Some European states and developing countries argue that, if only three of the P5 countries at the IAEA vote in favor of the resolution, and if Arab states oppose it, the resolution will have far less weight. These states may therefore propose language that gives Syria one last chance to explain itself to Amano.

Will action by the board this week mean there will be an IAEA "special inspection" in Syria?

No. A special inspection—permitted under Syria’s safeguards agreement—was for Amano a non-starter in view of the political risk should Syria not agree to it. Instead, Amano last month announced that the IAEA concluded that the evidence strongly suggests that the installation destroyed at Dair Alzour was a reactor—leaving it up to the board to decide whether Syria is out of compliance with its safeguards obligations.
In 2003, the United States went to war against Iraq having claimed wrongly that Iraq had restarted a nuclear weapons program that the IAEA concluded had been terminated. Unless the IAEA gets first hand access to Dair Alzour and other sites it wants to inspect in Syria—which so far Syria has refused to permit—Amano is unlikely to declare Dair Alzour to have been a reactor without a doubt.