The IAEA’s dilemma with Syria’s Al Kibar nuclear site

By Fiona Simpson | May 6, 2008

Although Israel’s September 2007 raid on what it believed to be the Al Kibar nuclear site in Syria has often been compared to its 1981 raid on the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq, the aura of secrecy surrounding the Syria raid stands in stark contrast to the extensive public explanations offered by Israel 27 years ago. Further details about the Syria raid have recently been provided, but they didn’t come from Israel. Instead, senior U.S. intelligence officials presented them to Congress and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in late April–nearly eight months after the raid.

In a February Bulletin web-edition piece entitled “IAEA Special Inspections After Israel’s Raid on Syria,” I argued that while the IAEA had the authority to invoke special inspections in regards to Syrian activities at Al Kibar, it probably would have never done so given the lack of concrete evidence. Instead, in bilateral discussions, the IAEA asked Syria for access to the site; a request that was evidently refused.

Since then, at an April 24 briefing, senior U.S. intelligence officials brought more substantial evidence forward, identifying the raid’s target as “a nuclear reactor . . . constructed by the Syrians . . . for the production of plutonium with the assistance of the North Koreans.” They also asserted the presence of North Korean nationals at the reactor, apparently documented in photographs. The briefing stated that the first evidence of such activity was discovered in the late 1990s, with reactor construction estimated to have begun in 2001. In spring 2007, intelligence officials received more information about the site, including interior and exterior photographs. They maintained that this information revealed the construction of a gas-cooled, graphite-moderated reactor similar to the reactor at Yongbyon in North Korea. But they acknowledged that they didn’t know how the reactor was going to be fuelled and that there weren’t any indications that a reprocessing facility existed or was being built–a necessity to extract plutonium from the spent fuel rods removed from the reactor. As a result, they noted that their confidence level was “low” that the activities at Al Kibar were those of a nuclear weapons program.

The timing of the briefing has been the source of much speculation. While some, President George W. Bush included, have said the delay was to ensure that Syria wasn’t unnecessarily antagonized, others believe it’s a tactic by the Bush administration to affect ongoing negotiations with North Korea. More likely, the administration caved to increasing pressure from Congress to brief it before Congress needed to approve removing sanctions on North Korea. Bush has also claimed that the disclosure of intelligence was intended to send a “message” to Iran. (See “Bush Defends Syria Reactor Claim.”)

International reaction

There’s speculation that Israel wasn’t in favor of the briefing, as from the outset, it worried that too much public attention might bait Syria into retaliation. (See “Israelis Upset U.S. Divulged Strike Details” and “North Korea and Syria: Oh, What A Tangled Web They Weave.”) Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s office turned down requests for comment, referring the media to statements he made a week earlier, when he noted, “The Syrians know what our position is, and we know what their expectations are.”

Unsurprisingly, for its part, Syria has vehemently denied the charges that Al Kibar was nuclear-related, claiming the target was a vacant military building that wasn’t even protected. Like Israel, North Korea has remained quiet on the matter.

The IAEA, which was briefed on the same day as Congress, spoke out sharply against the United States and Israel. It noted in a press release, “The director general deplores the fact that this information was not provided to the agency in a timely manner . . . [He] views the unilateral use of force by Israel as undermining the due process of verification that is at the heart of the nonproliferation regime.” The press release reaffirmed that Syria had an obligation to inform the IAEA prior to the construction of such a facility and that the agency intended to investigate the information provided to it. But the bulk of the official reaction was devoted to a reiteration of IAEA safeguard responsibilities under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the agency’s displeasure with the United States and Israel over the raid and the silence that followed.

This displeasure links back to the question of special inspections. As noted above, the lack of evidence upon which to proceed effectively kept the IAEA from exercising its authority. But had the evidence been provided to the agency in the absence of a strike against Syria, it would have been under serious internal and external pressure to call for a special inspection of the site. If the IAEA failed to do so, the agency would have been risking its credibility and inviting questions about the usefulness of the special inspections provision and the circumstances needed to invoke it. How this might have then played out in the IAEA Board of Governors if Syria refused to grant the inspections is difficult to say. Also difficult to assess is how the IAEA might have proceeded had the evidence been immediately provided, but with the added complication of the strike.

Possible outcomes

During the briefing, U.S. intelligence officials stated that Al Kibar was “not yet part of an active weapons program.” Although such a statement lends itself to misinterpretation, the use of the word “yet” assumes that the simplest explanation for an undeclared Syrian nuclear reactor is probably the correct explanation–i.e., that it was eventually intended for proliferation purposes. Nonetheless, the questions raised by the lack of a reprocessing facility, as well as the questions regarding how, when, and by whom such a reactor was to be fuelled, remain unanswered. (See “Syria Update III: New Information about the Al Kibar Reactor Site.”)

Within the context of denuclearizing North Korea, renewed discussion over Syria and its links to North Korea doesn’t appear to have put either the Six-Party Talks or work toward dismantling the North Korean nuclear program in any more jeopardy than would have resulted from simply failing to answer congressional questions about the raid. Although North Korea missed the December 31 deadline to provide a complete inventory of its nuclear program, the administration, which had originally insisted that North Korea detail its enrichment activities as well as reprocessing activities, was moving toward an alternative that would allow North Korea simply to acknowledge U.S. concerns about these activities and alleged nuclear cooperation with other parties. And despite the recent briefing, which deepened the hostility of some in Congress toward the administration’s policy on North Korea, the House Foreign Affairs Committee approved a bill that would allow funds to be used toward North Korea’s denuclearization. But the bill requires the president to demonstrate that Pyongyang isn’t providing proliferation-sensitive nuclear technology to Syria or Iran before removing North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

As part of its own investigation, the IAEA indicated that it will submit a new request to Syria to visit the site. (See “IAEA to Look Into Syria Reactor Claim.”) This decision has been welcomed by several countries at the 2008 NPT Preparatory Committee, which is currently underway in Geneva.

In the raid’s aftermath, Syria refused IAEA access to Al Kibar, but Damascus has now reversed that position, claiming it has “nothing to hide.” In a sense, this is true; the original site has been bulldozed and new construction has started. Therefore, because of the time that has elapsed between the raid and the availability of the evidence, it seems unlikely that any on-the-ground investigations will be able to provide conclusive proof of the allegations and evidence provided at the April 24 briefing–particularly so given that no nuclear material had been introduced to the site, ruling out the utility of certain safeguards techniques (environmental sampling, for instance) that would detect the presence of such material. Indeed, the absence of nuclear material at Al Kibar seems to be one of the few things that all the parties involved agree upon.

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