How the agency responds to the Syrian challenge may determine whether future urgent proliferation concerns are brought before it and the U.N. Security Council or resolved through military force, as Israel did with its airstrike last year on Syria's al-Kibar site.
On Sept. 6, 2007, Israeli warplanes bombed the site in northeastern Syria. Days later Syria demolished the remaining portions of the damaged facility, bulldozed the site and erected a new building atop the buried rubble. In April 2008 senior U.S. intelligence officials briefed Congress and the press, saying they had detailed information showing that the al-Kibar facility was a nuclear reactor.
In June Syria granted IAEA inspectors access to the site (while denying them access to three other sites), where they took environmental samples. After the visit Syria suspended cooperation with the agency, saying it was awaiting the results of the samples. Despite all that Damascus had done to scrub the site, IAEA soil samples revealed "a significant number of natural uranium particles" that were "anthropogenic," that is, produced by human action rather than being already present in the environment.
Since then Syria has refused to respond to IAEA requests for additional information. In its defense Syria told the IAEA that particles found at the site "were contained in the missiles that were dropped from the Israeli planes onto the buildings." These claims have been widely dismissed, however, as no country is known to have ever used natural uranium in a bomb or a missile.
Syria's safeguards agreement with the IAEA requires notification to the agency in advance of construction of any nuclear facility, regardless of the presence of nuclear material. So, if indeed Syria was building a reactor, it would have violated its IAEA obligations. Not surprisingly, Syria has claimed the site was not a reactor, but Damascus has not made much of a case on its own behalf. As the IAEA report notes, "Syria has not yet acceded to the Agency's request to provide any documentation relevant to the destroyed building, or any of the other buildings, to support its statements."
While the very construction of a reactor without notification violates Syria's international treaty obligations, evidence of nuclear material at the site significantly raises the level of concern. The natural uranium found by the IAEA is the type of fuel that would be fed into a reactor to produce plutonium, which, after extraction in a reprocessing facility, could fuel a nuclear bomb. At a minimum, the presence of the natural uranium particles suggests that fuel for the reactor may have been on site when the facility was bombed.
The IAEA report is the latest evidence of the superb technical capabilities of the IAEA staff. Regrettably, however, this work at times has been undercut by ElBaradei, who has a tendency to emphasize benign interpretations of ambiguous findings while ignoring mechanisms available for suspected proliferators to provide evidence to the contrary. The real shortcoming with the international law approach, however, has been the failure of will by the governments that sit on the agency's board of governors and the U.N. Security Council.
Next week's meeting will answer longstanding questions regarding the utility of the agency for resolving nuclear problems. If Syrian stonewalling continues, how will the IAEA proceed? Will the governors recommend sanctions if the investigation yields derogatory conclusions or if Syria continues to put forth implausible explanations unsupported by evidence?
A serious response by the governors would be to warn Syria that failure to resolve the outstanding issues on a timely basis would constitute a violation of Syria's obligations, which the IAEA would have to report to the Security Council for action by that body. At a minimum, the governors should demand documentation of Syria's claims about the destroyed building and follow-up inspections of the site and access to the three facilities to which Syria denied the IAEA.
The unfortunate reality is that the IAEA/Security Council approach, to date, has not dealt effectively with several proliferation threats. In contrast, Israeli military action resulted in the complete destruction of the reactor site and evidently to an indefinite postponement if not abandonment of Syria's nuclear ambitions. Moreover, the Israeli action was tacitly accepted by the international community: No Arab country (other than Syria) and no European government complained about the Israeli raid. Even the Arab League statement was mild.
International reaction to Israel's al-Kibar strike stands in stark contrast to its 1981 raid on the Iraqi Osiraq reactor, which was nearly universally condemned. One way to understand the difference between 1981 and 2007 is that the world today is less optimistic that reliance on the IAEA can stop proliferation. The agency can change this perception by acting decisively on Syria during its next meeting. And in the process, it just might generate enough credibility regarding its effectiveness to forestall an airstrike -- Israeli or American -- against Tehran's nuclear facilities.
(Patrick Clawson is deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; David Schenker is a senior fellow and director of the Program on Arab Politics at the institute, which first published a version of this article.)
(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)
(Copyright 2008 Washington Institute for Near East Policy)