Damascus Deception

Two years after their reactor was destoyed, the Syrians still haven't come clean about their covert nuclear program and the world's nuclear watchdog is powerless to make them.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Last Friday, Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), issued a fourth report on the agency’s investigation into Syria’s attempts to construct a covert nuclear program with the help of North Korea. The report shows that two years after their suspected reactor was destroyed, Damascus continues to stonewall the IAEA. It also illustrates the agency’s limitations in detecting and investigating clandestine activities. The reactor may no longer exist, but Syria’s past pursuits and North Korea’s dangerous role are still causes for concern — as is the IAEA’s inability to do anything about them.

Syria’s rogue nuclear program was shrouded in secrecy from the beginning. The reactor was constructed in a remote desert canyon, its resemblance to a North Korean reactor disguised with false walls and a false ceiling, and its cooling pipes buried underground. Syria did not notify the IAEA of the reactor’s construction, thereby violating its Safeguards Agreement, a standard agreement meant to allow the IAEA to verify the peaceful use of nuclear material.

After an Israeli airstrike in September 2007 destroyed the reactor, Syria went to great lengths to cover up its violation. President Bashar al-Assad denied that the destroyed facility housed a reactor, and North Korea refused to acknowledge its involvement. Incriminating components were hauled away, the facility remains were further destroyed, much of a surrounding hill was bulldozed over the site, and a new building was quickly erected on top.

When IAEA inspectors arrived at the site in June 2008, what was left of the reactor had already been removed or buried. But the inspectors still did their job: They took environmental samples, which when analyzed showed traces of man-made uranium. They asked detailed questions about the destroyed facility and suspicious Syrian procurement activities, which Syrian authorities refused to answer. Syria soon announced that IAEA inspectors were no longer welcome except at sites they had already declared.

It is now well over a year since that one and only visit to the destroyed reactor site. Syria has refused IAEA requests to visit other suspect sites. And as the director general reports, Syria "did not cooperate with the agency to confirm Syria’s statements regarding the non-nuclear nature of the destroyed building." Earlier in the investigation, ElBaradei sought to highlight cooperation. Now, he reports that the agency’s "ability to confirm Syria’s explanation regarding the past nature of the destroyed building … is severely impeded because Syria has not provided sufficient access to information, locations, equipment or materials." "Severely impeded" is about as strong as language gets in Vienna.

Assad obviously wants to bury the investigation in the same way that Syrian bulldozers buried the reactor remains. But the IAEA cannot let this happen, both for the credibility of its safeguards regime and to ensure that leaders in Damascus, Pyongyang, and other capitals are not tempted to try again. The IAEA must keep the spotlight on Syria, insist on Syria’s full cooperation, and be prepared to exercise the IAEA’s full authority. Ultimately the IAEA Board must be ready to find that Syria’s noncooperation constitutes noncompliance and report that noncompliance to the U.N. Security Council.

Syria is trying to limit the IAEA investigation by strictly interpreting its safeguards agreement, which focuses on accounting for nuclear material at sites that, unlike that of the destroyed reactor, were formally declared to the IAEA. However, the agreement also includes a provision for "special inspections" of any site if the agency concludes that the access and information being provided by Syria is insufficient. The director general’s report suggests that this time has come.

Part of the problem in Syria is the inherent weakness of today’s safeguards system. An additional protocol to the standard safeguards agreement was meant to help IAEA inspectors uncover illicit nuclear activities at undeclared sites. However, Syria is one of a group of countries — including Egypt, Brazil, and Argentina — that have refused to sign the additional protocol. Iran has signed a protocol but refuses to implement it. The Syrian case shows why this protocol needs to become a universal standard.

Yet even with the additional protocol, there is no assurance that the IAEA would have detected Syria’s elaborately concealed reactor. To detect and investigate clandestine activities, the IAEA must assemble a mosaic of information acquired from many sources. The IAEA is accordingly moving to a more information-driven investigative approach.

But this frequently involves member states providing sensitive information, often acquired by intelligence agencies — not always an easy task. The sharing of information from other member states requires confidence — confidence that the information provided will be protected as necessary and confidence that it will be used with good effect to further safeguards investigations. Removing the politics from these investigations and returning the IAEA to its technical verification role will go a long way to ensuring this confidence and strengthening the agency in face of future violations.

Strangely, the report only mentions North Korea’s role briefly, but the IAEA must not let the country’s role stay buried in the rubble. It was North Korea’s willingness to sell its nuclear expertise that gave Syria the opportunity to build the reactor. Even if Syria is dissuaded from trying again, North Korea’s leaders might find another willing customer, particularly if that customer thinks that cooperation with North Korea carries no international penalty.

The IAEA Board must also take its verification role far more seriously. It is striking how many board members are always eager to criticize Israel or the United States but remained silent on Syria’s violation and failure to cooperate. Yet it is many of these same countries — such as Egypt or Malaysia — that could suffer most from a nuclear arms race in the Middle East or from North Korea exporting nuclear technology to an irresponsible country or terrorist group in their region. Moreover, President Obama’s vision of a world without nuclear weapons, a vision widely supported by IAEA member states, is unthinkable without a robust verification system.

The case of Syria’s reactor underscores the importance of strengthening the IAEA — removing the politics from IAEA investigations, refocusing the agency on its technical verification role, and ensuring that it has the authority, resources, and will to have the bark required of the world’s nuclear watchdog.

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