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IAEA Chief Presses Iran, Syria to Come Clean on Nuclear Activities
VIENNA, AUSTRIA -- The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency on Monday called on Iran and Syria to cooperate more fully with efforts to ensure the nations' nuclear programs are not intended to produce weapons (see GSN, March 4).
U.N. nuclear watchdog Director General Yukiya Amano spoke at the beginning of this week's meeting of the 35-state IAEA Board of Governors. While he renewed longstanding questions about Syrian and Iranian atomic activities, observers said there was little chance the board would take a definitive stand on either matter this week.
The United States and allied nations have for years suspected Iran's nuclear program is geared toward acquiring a nuclear-weapon capability, an assertion vehemently rejected by Tehran. Meanwhile, Syria has drawn greater focus since a 2007 Israeli airstrike destroyed an alleged nuclear reactor site.
"Iran is not providing the necessary cooperation to enable the agency to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran, and therefore to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities," Amano told the board, which is scheduled to meet through Friday. "I request Iran to take steps towards the full implementation of its safeguards agreement and its other obligations."
In his latest safeguards report on Iran's atomic activities, Amano last month confirmed there has been no diversion of nuclear material at facilities placed under his organization's watch.
However, the Middle Eastern state continues to defy IAEA board and U.N. Security Council resolutions by conducting uranium enrichment, a process that can be used to produce nuclear-weapon material. Along with its main enrichment plant at Natanz, Iran has an operational pilot site and informed Amano it expects to begin feeding material into centrifuges at its Qum facility this summer. No known material has been enriched to weapon level.
Iran has failed to address reported aspects of its nuclear operation that point to a possible military component, according to the report. These include uranium conversion, production and testing of high explosives that could be used to set off a nuclear detonation, and "redesign activities" for missile re-entry vehicles to carry a potential nuclear payload.
Tehran in 2008 characterized as forgeries documents obtained by the U.N. nuclear watchdog that appeared to point to Iranian weapons activities. That explanation, though, was not sufficient and Tehran has not offered a more "substantive" response, Amano said in the safeguards document.
Information that has come to light since 2008, including "new information recently received," require clarification by Tehran, the agency chief said in last month's safeguards report.
Speaking during an afternoon press conference on Monday, Amano offered few details about the new information, other than it had arrived after the last board meeting in December and addressed activities that stretched beyond 2004.
"We are not saying Iran has a nuclear weapons program. We have concerns and we want to clear the matter," he said.
Amano acknowledged the lack of progress in resolving the nuclear impasse since his tenure began in December 2009. Iran has not responded substantively to the agency's requests for access to sites, personnel and records, "therefore there has not been progress," the director general said at the news briefing.
The board spent Monday afternoon addressing nuclear safety matters. Discussion of safeguards issues for Iran, Syria and other nations was not expected to begin before Tuesday afternoon.
The chances of the board approving resolutions that would reflect consensus on concerns about the nuclear programs of Iran and Syria, with recommendations on how the agency should go forward, is "not very good," according to Mark Hibbs, a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The governing board might be able to issue a "statement," though, which would require less debate than a resolution, Hibbs told Global Security Newswire outside the closed-door board deliberations.
"On Iran and Syria, board members have been deliberating whether they will make a statement by the end of the meeting on outstanding safeguards compliance matters," he said. "The statement might, for example, urge Director General Amano to evaluate for the board the evidence at hand ... since both Iran and Syria are refusing to answer the IAEA's questions, thereby preventing the IAEA from drawing ultimate conclusions about their compliance."
A statement would also be "far less compelling" than a resolution aimed at Damascus or Tehran, Hibbs said.
The Iranians are seen as more recalcitrant on the matter than at the last board meeting, given their intention to install and operate more powerful uranium enrichment centrifuges and the failure of two meetings between Iran and six world powers to lower tensions, Hibbs said. Russia, though, remains cautious on pressuring Tehran, he added.
"The Russians' stake in Iran's nuclear program is considerable," Hibbs said. "They're less willing to squeeze Iran. They've been that way for a long time."
There is also little in Amano's report that would enable the United States or other nations to press for new Iranian sanctions, Paul Ingram, executive director the British American Security Information Council, said in an analysis. Tehran is already subject to four rounds of U.N. Security Council resolutions and independent penalties from a number of nations.
On Syria, Hibbs asserted that the potential resumption of Middle Eastern peace talks could draw attention away from the nuclear issue.
"This effort is going on behind the scenes now and board members, who otherwise are prepared to deplore Syria's lack of cooperation with the IAEA, are reluctant to provoke a crisis with Syria over its nuclear program, which could torpedo talks between Syria, Israel, and other states," Hibbs stated in an online analysis.
Syria has denied that the destroyed facility at Dair Alzour was an unfinished nuclear reactor site -- built with North Korean assistance -- that could have been used for plutonium production. It has said the facility was a military installation with no atomic functions. While that possibility cannot be ruled out, the structure's features and Syrian procurement for the plant suggest it was intended for nuclear use, Amano said in his safeguards report on Syria.
"Syria has not cooperated with the agency since June 2008 in connection with the unresolved issues related to the Dair Alzour site and some other locations," Amano told the board on Monday, according to prepared comments released to the press. "As a consequence, the agency has not been able to make progress towards resolving the outstanding issues related to those sites."
Damascus prohibited IAEA visits to the site after a June 2008 inspection turned up traces of anthropogenic uranium. It has also rejected requests for looks at three potentially related facilities.
Traces of anthropogenic uranium not listed in Syria's formal accounting were also found in 2008 and 2009 at the Miniature Neutron Source Reactor in Damascus. In his report, Amano called on Syria to resolve questions about the origin of the material under a September 2010 agreement between the sides.
Syria last month said it would allow IAEA inspectors to visit a plant at Homs that produces yellowcake uranium through acid purification operations. The inspection is set for April 1, and the agency hopes it will help verify the origin of uranium particles found at the neutron source reactor, Amano said.
"I need to see what will be the result, but this could be a step forward," he told reporters. "This does not solve all the problems, of course."
Glyn Davies, the Obama administration's ambassador to the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency, has already derided Damascus's offering as inadequate for addressing the nuclear dispute. There have been increasing calls in the United States and elsewhere for the agency to demand a special, short-notice nuclear inspection in Syria.
Hibbs played down the likelihood of that happening.
"Because Syria is believed to have been covering its nuclear tracks, as time progresses, Amano may be less and less willing to request a special inspection," he wrote in the analysis. "Were the IAEA to go to these sites and find nothing, Syria would be vindicated and the political credibility of the IAEA could be damaged."
In the long term, the best outcome would be for Syria to accept a political agreement to give up suspect nuclear activities in return for improved relations with the West, Hibbs argued. The deal theoretically would be similar to the 2003 agreement that led to Libya's renunciation of weapons of mass destruction.
Amano also called on North Korea to allow the agency to resume monitoring nuclear facilities in the country. Inspectors in April 2009 were ejected from the nation -- again -- after the U.N. Security Council condemned a round of missile tests by Pyongyang.
Amano reaffirmed international demands that the North adhere to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, cooperate with his agency, and obey U.N. Security Council resolutions that obligate the nation to completely shutter its nuclear sector.
"I believe that last year's reports about the construction of a new uranium enrichment facility and a light-water reactor in the D.P.R.K. underline how important it is that the agency should be present in the D.P.R.K.," Amano said in his opening statement to the governing board.
He noted there are now 106 nations with safeguards deals that feature Additional Protocols, which allow for more intrusive inspections to ensure that nuclear work remains civilian in nature. Mexico, Mozambique, and the United Arab Emirates have all enacted such protocols since December.
"I strongly hope that remaining states will conclude Additional Protocols as soon as possible," Amano told the board. "I also ask the 16 states without NPT safeguards agreements in force to bring such agreements into force without delay."
The board this week is set to consider a safeguards plan for two reactor units at Pakistan's Chashma nuclear power site. Amano, during the press conference, said he did not have details of the safeguards plan.
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