What did the new information reveal? that the installation that was destroyed was a nuclear reactor, probably still under construction; that the reactor was similar to the North Korean reactor at Yongbyon that produced plutonium (subsequently used in an underground nuclear test explosion); and that Syria, despite its NPT obligations, concealed the very existence as well as the purpose of the installation and repeatedly denied the facts to the world and to the IAEA.
Syria has been trying to buy a nuclear reactor from several sources for a long time. It had sought to buy a research reactor from Argentina in the mid-1990's, but this failed when Argentina's foreign minister told Syria that it would not sell it a reactor unless Syria signed a peace treaty with Israel. Syria then tried, unsuccessfully, to buy a reactor from Russia. Apparently, Syria then concluded a secret deal with North Korea for the construction of a Yongbyon-type reactor in Syria. The extent of the North Korean involvement is not yet publicly known and is not that relevant, except for the fact that North Korea acted in breach of its NPT obligations.
There can be little doubt as to the purpose of the ill-fated reactor. Had it been intended for truly peaceful uses, it would have been declared to the IAEA. In addition, Syria's repeated denials give credence to the claims that the reactor was part of a clandestine weapons development program. Furthermore, Syria acted with astounding speed, razed the stricken inst
allation, and is putting up a supposedly military installation on the old foundations, making it almost impossible for any investigators to reveal the original purpose of the site.
There are five members of the NPT that have seriously reneged on their treaty obligations – Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Syria, and Libya. Iraq's project came to an end as a result of the 1991 Gulf War. Libya agreed to a rollback, probably as a result of the American invasion and toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003. The remaining three may still be conducting illegal activities aimed at producing nuclear weapons. North Korea has long been suspected of having a clandestine uranium enrichment project. Iran has an ongoing nuclear weapons development program. And there is no guarantee that Syria is not going the same route, given the rumors about the connection with the Pakistani scientist A. Q. Khan, the biggest proliferator of all.
The nuclear non-proliferation regime suffered an additional blow with the uncovering of Syria's misdeeds. The extent of the damage will be only known over time, and the prospects for the future need a much more elaborate discussion. In any case, if there will be no substantive change in the manner of the oversight and the application of regime, and if the NPT PrepCom and review conferences continue to become bogged down in secondary issues, the situation can only deteriorate further.
The reaction of the IAEA to the information that came out of the Congressional briefing was astounding. An Associated Press report quoted the IAEA: "The Director General [DG] views the unilateral use of force by Israel as undermining the due process of verification that is at the heart of the non-proliferation regime." In addition, "The Director General deplores the fact that this information was not provided to the Agency [by the U.S.] in a timely manner, in accordance with the Agency's responsibilities under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to enable it to verify its veracity and establish the facts." With regard to these statements, it should be noted first that verification is not a substitute for the demise of the reactor, which removed the potential for and the danger of plutonium production. Second, one should ask what would have actually happened had the facts been verified by safeguard inspections? Given the historical precedents, the IAEA DG would likely have deplored the fact that the reactor had not been declared in a timely manner, accepted Syrian assurances that hitherto the reactor would be safeguarded, and stated that Syria had the right to build and operate a nuclear reactor, as long as it was safeguarded.
In any case, the IAEA could not have prevented the continuing construction and later operation of the reactor, which would have resulted in the potential for the production of plutonium, as was demonstrated by this reactor's sibling – the Yongbyon reactor. It is easy to understand the DG's wrath – he probably did not figure in any of the decision making process prior to the bombing. At present, Syria signaled that it would be willing to let the IAEA search for the truth. It is a "no win" situation for Syria if the inspectors uncover the remains of a nuclear reactor. It is a "lose" situation to the IAEA if it does not.
One cannot escape the conclusion that the IAEA has continuously failed in its missions, notably in Iraq, Iran, and Syria. The IAEA has set up an extensive organization, including a Division of Information, which is really a Division of Intelligence, within its Department of Safeguards. The Syrian episode clearly demonstrates that the division has failed in its task. One does not need such a division if the DG states that he has to rely on external information and chastises the Member States for not providing the information in a timely manner.
This may be an appropriate time for the Board of Governors (BOG) to contemplate a much more thorough oversight of the operation of this organization. Given the political realties, however, it is highly questionable whether the IAEA Board of Governors will indeed do so.
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