U.N. nuclear board reports Syria to Security Council

By Fredrik Dahl and Sylvia Westall

VIENNA (Reuters) – The U.N. nuclear watchdog board decided on Thursday to report Syria to the Security Council for covert atomic work, a U.S.-led move coinciding with Western condemnation of Damascus’ crackdown on opposition protests.

Russia and China voted against the proposal at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), highlighting big power divisions and probably ruling out any follow-up punitive measures by the U.N. council in New York.

With 17 votes in favor and six against, the IAEA’s 35-nation board adopted the resolution rebuking the Arab state for three years of stonewalling of an agency probe into the Dair Alzour complex destroyed by Israel in 2007.

U.S. intelligence reports have said it was a nascent, North Korean-designed reactor intended to produce plutonium for atomic bombs before it was bombed to rubble.

The IAEA, the Vienna-based U.N. atomic agency, gave independent backing to the U.S. allegation in a report last month which said it was “very likely” to have been a reactor.

Syria says it was a military, non-nuclear facility.

The country’s IAEA envoy said he regretted Thursday’s IAEA decision but that it would not affect its relations with the agency, suggesting Damascus would not take retaliatory steps.

The board resolution found Syria — which is also facing Western sanctions over its violent crackdown on pro-democracy protests — in “non-compliance” with its international obligations and reported the case to the Security Council.

U.S. envoy Glyn Davies said it was a necessary step and that the IAEA board could not accept Syria’s “concealment” of nuclear activities.

“Syria’s apparent attempt at constructing a secret undeclared, plutonium production reactor — a reactor with no credible peaceful purpose – represents one of the most serious safeguards violations possible,” Davies told reporters.

German Ambassador Ruediger Luedeking said after the vote: “The latest Syria report by the IAEA … left no other choice.”

WARNING TO IRAN?

It came a day after Britain, France, Germany and Portugal gave the Security Council a draft resolution condemning Syria’s crackdown on protesters, despite the risk of a Russian veto.

Several non-Western IAEA board members had expressed skepticism about sending the issue to New York, with some arguing that whatever happened at Dair Alzour was now in the past and did not represent a current threat.

Diplomats said those expressing doubt, apart from Russia and China, also included some Arab states and developing countries. Azerbaijan, Ecuador, Pakistan and Venezuela also voted no. Eleven countries abstained in the vote.

Russia and China are especially important because they are among the five permanent members of the Security Council, which also groups the United States, France and Britain.

The 15-nation council has the power to impose sanctions, as it has done four times over Iran’s nuclear program.

The IAEA board can refer countries to the Security Council if they are judged to have violated global non-proliferation rules by engaging in covert nuclear work.

It reported Iran to the Security Council in 2006 over its failure to dispel suspicions that it was trying to develop nuclear weapons. Tehran has since been hit with four rounds of U.N. sanctions over its refusal to curb sensitive nuclear work.

Syria, an ally of Iran, denies harboring a nuclear weapons program and says the focus should be on Israel instead because of its presumed nuclear arsenal.

In an apparent bid to derail any censure by the IAEA, Syria offered last month to fully cooperate with the agency, after earlier rebuffing repeated requests for access to Dair Alzour.

Western diplomats dismissed the Syrian initiative as a tactical move and said it was important for the board to act as it would also send a warning signal to other countries such as Iran not to engage in any secret atomic activities.

Syria’s ambassador to the IAEA, Bassam Al-Sabbagh, called the referral vote “regrettable.”

Asked if it would affect cooperation with the IAEA, he said: “I think Syria has always been committed to its obligations and to its duties and I think we will continue to do so.”