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U.N. to inspect alleged nuclear site in Syria

IAEA team will visit the area bombed by Israel. The agency also is vexed by questions about Iran's program.

June 03, 2008|Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writer

BEIRUT — The head of the United Nations' nuclear watchdog agency surprised diplomats and arms control experts Monday by announcing that inspectors would visit Syria for two days to try to clear up the mystery of an alleged nuclear site destroyed in an Israeli airstrike last year.

Mohamed ElBaradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, told the board of governors in Vienna that a team of inspectors would travel to Syria on June 22 to investigate the site. ElBaradei expressed frustration over the IAEA's investigation of Iran's nuclear program, which Tehran insists is meant for peaceful electricity generation and Western officials allege masks a drive to produce nuclear weapons.

The IAEA chief said it was "regrettable" that his agency had not made "the progress we had hoped for" regarding documents suggesting Iran was working on missile designs, uranium experiments and explosives testing consistent with a nuclear weapons program. He also strongly criticized Tehran.

"Iran has not yet agreed to implement all the transparency measures required to clarify this cluster of allegations and questions," he told the IAEA governing board.

The Israeli strike on the Syrian site in September was considered by many analysts as a warning to Iran about Israel's willingness to use force to prevent regional rivals from obtaining the capability to produce nuclear weapons. Israel is believed to have an arsenal of more than 300 nuclear warheads.

Officials in Damascus, the Syrian capital, have contended that the site Israel targeted was nothing more than an unused military building. Satellite photographs suggested that the site had been bulldozed, raising suspicions about the Syrian explanation.

In April, U.S. intelligence officials presented lawmakers with purported photographic evidence that the site was a plutonium factory being built with the help of North Korean engineers.

ElBaradei said that information about the site was also passed on to his agency in April. "Syria, like all states with comprehensive safeguards agreements, has an obligation to report the planning and construction of any nuclear facility to the agency," he said, according to a copy of his introductory remarks. "We are therefore treating this information with the seriousness it deserves."

Syria's decision to allow international inspections astounded diplomats and analysts. "What's the point?" said Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control expert at the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank. "What do [the Syrians] get out of it? They don't get anything out of it as far as I can see."

ElBaradei, an Egyptian diplomat, has been criticized by neoconservatives in Washington as being too soft in dealing with Iran's nuclear program. The IAEA chief has implicitly criticized the Israeli shoot-first-and-ask-for-inspections-later policy, which he said prevented his agency from probing the Syrian site.

"It is deeply regrettable that information concerning this installation was not provided to the agency in a timely manner and that force was resorted to unilaterally before the agency was given an opportunity to establish the facts," ElBaradei said.

Regarding Iran, ElBaradei said the documents pointing to weapons-related atomic research "remain a matter of serious concern." He noted that after a period of reluctance Iran had agreed to discuss the documents, which originally came to light through a smuggled laptop computer. Iran contends the documents are forgeries.

But he also said the agency had found no conclusive evidence of a nuclear weapons program. He said Western intelligence agencies that provided his agency with the studies were hindering inspectors' work by not allowing them to show the documents to Iranian officials.

Release of at least some of the documents, he said, "would clearly help the agency in its investigations."

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daragahi@latimes.com

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