James ActonCan the IAEA Suspend Assistance to Syria?

There is a storm brewing over in Vienna about whether the IAEA should cease technical cooperation with Syria on account of the latter’s suspected nuclear programme.

The IAEA Director General weighed in on Monday. According to Reuters

IAEA Director Mohamed ElBaradei urged governors to approve the aid project, saying there was no legal basis for curbing Syria’s IAEA membership rights based on unverified accusations.

“There are claims against Syria, which we’re looking at. There were claims against Iraq, which were proven bonkers (mad), and after, the result was a terrible war,” he said in remarks to the closed gathering relayed to Reuters.

“So we have to be very careful when we talk about an investigation,” ElBaradei said. “Even people who are not a lawyer would know that people and countries are innocent until proven guilty. And we continue to act on that basis.”

Let me say first off that, on a personal level, I entirely agree with suspending technical cooperation with Syria. Ceasing to assist Syria to develop a nuclear power programme is an entirely appropriate and proportionate step given the very strong evidence that Syria built a clandestine reactor—in fact, in my opinion, it would be “bonkers” not to take this step.

But, putting my personal feelings aside, is ElBaradei right about the lack of a legal basis for stopping technical cooperation?

Article 19 of Syria’s Comprehensive Safeguards agreement states that

If the Board, upon examination of relevant information reported to it by the Director General, finds that the Agency is not able to verify that there has been no diversion of nuclear material required to be safeguarded under this Agreement to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices, it may make the reports provided for in paragraph C of Article XII of the Statute of the Agency (hereinafter referred to as “the Statute”) and may also take, where applicable, the other measures provided for in that paragraph. In taking such action the Board shall take account of the degree of assurance provided by the safeguards measures that have been applied and shall afford Syria every reasonable opportunity to furnish the Board with any necessary reassurance.

Note the way this article is phrased. The IAEA is required to make a finding of non-compliance if it is unable to verify the non-diversion of nuclear material. It does not have to prove there has been a diversion; it only needs to be unable to prove that there hasn’t been one. So, ElBaradei is quite wrong when he says that states are innocent until proven guilty. Fair or not, Syria signed up to a system that works the other way around.

Given the evidence in GOV/2008/60, there seems little doubt that the IAEA cannot verify the non-diversion of nuclear material in Syria. Moreover, it has given Syria “every reasonable opportunity to furnish the Board with any necessary reassurance”. Syria has recently said it will allow no more inspections.

So, there seems to me little doubt that the Board already has legal right (if not the obligation) to find Syria in non-compliance. If that is done, article XII.C of the Statute comes into play:

The Board shall call upon the recipient State or States to remedy forthwith any non-compliance which it finds to have occurred. The Board shall report the non-compliance to all members and to the Security Council and General Assembly of the United Nations. In the event of failure of the recipient State or States to take fully corrective action within a reasonable time, the Board may take one or both of the following measures: direct curtailment or suspension of assistance being provided by the Agency…

The article manifestly gives the IAEA the right to suspend technical cooperation. I would argue that it could do this right away since it has already given Syria “reasonable time” to take “fully corrective actions” but I am sure that others would argue this article means that Syria must be given some more time after it is found in non-compliance. In any event, even if the IAEA can’t suspend technical cooperation right now, it should be able to do so in the near future, if it finds Syria in non-compliance now.

There, however, is the rub. My reading of the law is that the IAEA can only suspend technical cooperation after finding Syria in non-compliance. As much as I think such a finding would be legally justified (and entirely deserved), it seems like a non-starter right now. And because of that it also seems to me that the legal basis for denying Syria technical cooperation is shaky—even if the reasons are totally different from those implied by the Director General.


  1. russm

    “The IAEA is required to make a finding of non-compliance …” (my emphasis)

    Except the language you quoted is all “it may make the reports” and “and may also take … the other measures”. So unless there’s more language that applies if non-diversion cannot be proved these are simply now available options for the IAEA, and not the requirement you claim.

  2. Andy (History)


    While I agree with your post in principle, I think it is important to look at the big picture and think tactically. Specifically, what is the goal and what is the best way to get there? If the goal is a full accounting of the BOE then I don’t think a finding of noncompliance is going to get you there (or anywhere useful) unless it’s part of a bigger political strategy.

    So while the IAEA may have the legal right to declare Syria in noncompliance, it probably is not wise to do so, at least at this time.

  3. Andrew Foland (History)

    Given the evidence in GOV/2008/60, there seems little doubt that the IAEA cannot verify the non-diversion of nuclear material in Syria.

    Really? I just read the report. It’s clear the IAEA cannot verify the non-intention of Syria to build a nuclear reactor. But that’s not quite the same as being unable to verify non-diversion of safeguarded material into “nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices”.

    That said, in terms of the actual what-ought-to-be-done, I agree with you. Suspension seems a legitimate reaction even short of proof.

    “Innocent until proven guilty” is a legal standard for a state acting to deprive a citizen of life, liberty, or property. I don’t see that the standard need be so high for suspension of technical nuclear cooperation.

  4. John McGlynn (History)

    The US (or Israel or the UK or . . .) accuses Middle Eastern country X of nuclear wrongdoing (a diversion). But there’s no evidence uncovered by the IAEA or anyone else. So far, X is not noncompliant (not guilty). But wait. Israel (or the US or . . .) bombs a facility in country X. The facility is destroyed/seriously damaged and so is the opportunity to be “able to verify that there has been no diversion of nuclear material required to be safeguarded.” (Syria’s Comp. Safeguards agreement) So under these circumstances the fact that we are “unable to verify the non-diversion of nuclear material” (James Acton) means country X should be found noncompliant (“guilty” – Acton), with “bonkers” consequences likely to follow. In other words, John Bolton’s wet dream of how international law should operate.

  5. Maggie Leber (History)

    If a finding of non-compliance is somehow a “non-starter”, isn’t IAEA itself failing to comply with the statute? I don’t see any wiggle room it how it is worded.

  6. FSB

    Since we are dissecting the wonky pubes of legal minutiae here, should we also refer the U.S. and Israel to the International Court of Justice for bombing nations pre-emptively?

    Thanks very much — I’ll go with ElBaradei’s view on this.

  7. Yossi

    * NTI older nuclear chronology suggests that Syria talking yet again on building a nuclear reactor is not likely to materialize due to lack of paying power. The current IAEA “crisis” is probably just another political game that wouldn’t lead to, or prevent the nuclear generation of one Watt. It’s a good opportunity though to check that Syria continued its attempts to get a nuclear reactor (for free?) while it was busy building its alleged reactor near Halabiya, yet another puzzling aspect of the USIC fascinating story.

    * Continuation of the Syrian nuclear saga is detrimental to the interests of both Israel and Syria. From Syria’s viewpoint unfounded nuclear accusations are better than proven CW ones but this is no ideal situation. Israel is afraid its IC will be humiliated and hurt the omniscient image, an essential component of its deterrence. Who wants to keep stirring this smelly pot? Apparently these are the last throes of exiting neocon policy who wish to deliver a last blow on Syria, push Obama to confront Asad, kill the Israel/Syria peace talks, help Netanyahu get elected, promote neocon pro-chaos policy and prevent Syria buying a power reactor. Achieving so many wrong aims in one stroke is apparently an irresistible temptation.

    * Those of us who wish our world to become a little more quieter and safer should support the IAEA. It’s ok to criticize the agency and its DG on technical and legal grounds but it’s a dangerous policy to gnaw and erode at its status. The IAEA is a pillar of professionalism and sanity in a dark ocean of conflicting interests pursued unscrupulously. The alternative to the principle of “people and countries are innocent until proven guilty” is the equivalent of lynching.

    I didn’t study International Law and IAEA safeguards agreements but it seems to me that even suspicions must have some real basis. That’s at least what Israeli law requires. Do we have here a case of “diversion of nuclear material required to be safeguarded under this Agreement to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices”? I doubt that diversion of non-existent (and thus undeclared and unsafeguarded) nuclear fuel to non-existent reprocessing and weaponization labs is a crime. If you think the new accusations are founded please read my posts on previous blogs.

  8. Geoff Forden (History)

    James, we have both specified that neither one of us is a lawyer but you are asking a very lawyer-ish question so it’s probably worth parsing the agreement Syria signed a little more:

    “no diversion of nuclear material required to be safeguarded under this Agreement to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices”

    Note that it does not say to nuclear weapons programs. Does anyone even think that any of the material had actually been transferred to build a weapon or explosive device? No, it was natural uranium particles that the IAEA has been reported to have found. At most, Syria was embarking on the start of a nuclear weapons program and had, perhaps, transferred material that should have been under safeguards (metallic natural uranium). But, again, not to weapon or an explosive. So, as I read it, even though Syria’s actions may have been outrageous and a gross violation of their obligations of their safeguard responsibilities—and that is what ElBaradei says, quite correctly, has not be proven—it doesn’t approach the requirements that you snippet you have picked out. So your question is the correct one to ask: does the IAEA have the right to stop technical assistance? And the answer, at least from this portion of their safeguards agreement would be no.

  9. AWR (History)

    For a long time, there was a dangerous disconnect between the IAEA’s technical assistance and standards put forward by the Departments of Nuclear Safety and Safeguards. This was particularly true in the case of radioactive source material. Some shocking lapses were discovered by the Agency, and, over time, ElBaradei and Blix largely corrected this problem.

    What is often overlooked by some is the political bargain that creates such support for the Agency: although the technical cooperation (TC) budget is voluntary, if there were no technical assistance, support for safeguards from less-developed countries would evaporate. The big nuclear power countries are there for safeguards, the less-developed are there for the TC program[me].

    Because of this interdependence, it seems to me that the objectives of TC and safeguards/safety should seamlessly complement each other. But ElBaradei and other politicians clearly understand the attendant political risks of a point-of-no-return referral to the UNSC for non-compliance. I expect the Agency will defer or slow-roll the Syria TC project until things become more clear.

  10. skf

    The standard 153 agreement also has the following language to make sure that the agency does not have to prove that any diversion was for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices:

    28. The Agreement should provide that the objective of safeguards is the timely detection of diversion of significant quantities of nuclear material from peaceful nuclear activities to the manufacture of nuclear weapons or of other nuclear explosive devices or for purposes unknown, and deterrence of such diversion by the risk of early detection.”

    Thus any “diversion” is non-compliance.

  11. Rwendland (History)

    Can anyone clarify the use of Article 36 exemptions from safeguarding for me, and it’s relevance to this legal basis discussion?

    Article 36 in Syria’s old-style agreement allows a state to keep upto 10 tonnes of natural uranium and 1 effective kg of special fissionable material (as in some LEU, HEU and R&D plutonium) exempt from safeguards. (And some DU & Thorium.)

    Does a state have to notify the IAEA that it is using this provision, giving amounts and where stored? I can see no reqt in the text of the agreement requiring this. In fact I cannot find any reqt even to notify the IAEA this article is being used by the state in the case of non-imported material.

    Obviously if Syria has some Uranium metal quite properly outside safeguards, then the Article 19 reqt “no diversion of nuclear material required to be safeguarded” giving a legal basis for a Article XII.C report might well not apply.

  12. Yossi (History)

    It seems the BoE saga is not going to end any time soon…

    A quote from a new Reuters item :


    Diplomats close to the inquiry said it was possible that the seven states with commercial satellite networks pulled pictures for that period from circulation for undetermined security reasons, or Syria had bought them up to impede investigators.

    The seven countries are the United States, Israel, France, Russia, China, India and Japan, said a senior diplomat, who like others, asked for anonymity because they were discussing restricted information.

  13. Allen Thomson


    I recently had a possibly relevant experience WRT this:

    Back around 1 Jan 2008, I was working on the imagery appendix of the sourcebook (www.fas.org/man/eprint/syria.pdf), noticed in the GeoEye search engine that there was an Ikonos image from 23 Nov 2007 that showed a square what’s-it at the site of the former BOE, and put it in the sourcebook.

    Various things intervened, and I didn’t get back to the question until the end of October. By that time, the GeoEye search engine no longer listed that picture, so I made a request to GeoEye to see how I could get it, giving the metadata from the screenshot I’d made ten months earlier. They couldn’t find it either but, after a bit of asking around, located it at their Middle East affiliate and kindly made it available.

    But the image is still not listed on the main site, making me think there was a certain amount of withdrawal from the public domain going on.

    And there were the several DigitalGlobe shots of the close area in August 2007, certainly suggesting someone knew there was something interesting there. Press reports of a strike came out a day or two after the fact, so why didn’t at least the August requestors get more imagery ASAP?

    Like Dr. ElBaradei, I’m puzzled.

  14. Yossi

    * Sorry, I forgot to mark a deleted part in my quotation above.

    * Can some expert, i.e. Allen Thomson, enlighten us on when and how people can get exclusive rights on a commercial satellite image and thus make it unavailable for other?

    The pivotal questions are: 1) Can you do it retroactively on an image already taken or you must order it beforehand? 2) How much does it costs? 3) How much time it takes from ordering to actually taking the images?

    * We can assume that images taken before or just after the attack were ordered by people who knew about BoE before the attack. Some pre-knowledge is required also in the latter case because the procedure of ordering and taking the images takes some time (few days?).

    We can’t rule out that Syria itself ordered images of BoE before the attack but this is not very likely because: it would draw Western attention, cost probably more than Syria can afford and wouldn’t be very useful (being ok in the visual part of the spectrum doesn’t give one insurance against, e.g. revealing infra red emissions).

    If one can get exclusivity only on images he ordered, then the mystery forces who withhold data from the IAEA are probably associated with BoE attackers.

    * Why should anyone withhold these images? Either to hide what was inside BoE or to hide what was not! The guilty Syrians destroying an incriminating evidence is the first hypothesis that comes to mind but we can’t ignore the possibility of someone methodically removing clues that could help the defense.

    My personal guess is that the attackers thought BoE was nuclear but after the attack quickly found it was not. This intelligence reversal was probably caused by several findings. The Al Hamed arrival at Tartus, the trigger for the attack, was probably re-checked and it was found the ship didn’t visit NK for six years. Data collected at the time of the strike and satellite images of the fresh damage showed no clear signature of a nuclear reactor. A fresh look into the open data, like Dreamer did, showed serious counter-indications. The attackers understood they made fools of themselves in front of an un-friendly Middle East. Hope returned when the Syrians appeared to destroy the physical evidence and a face saving operation was initiated. A connection with NK was desperately sought and backfired in the USIC presentation (the “nuclear admins photo”), a set of ground photos was prepared etc.

    Part of the saving face operation was removing satellite images that could tell IAEA experts BoE wasn’t nuclear.

    * Note that the IAEA source of Reuters says: “… the seven states with commercial satellite networks pulled pictures for that period from circulation for undetermined security reasons, or Syria had bought them up to impede investigators.”. The club of seven satellite enabled countries is the prime suspect and Syria comes second, maybe because it can’t buy images in all relevant countries (e.g. Israeli owned images?) or because of lack of resources/sophistication.

    The source reminds us that the club of seven includes: United States, Israel, France, Russia, China, India and Japan. An Axis of Evil country will probably be suspect if it went to all seven and tried to remove images from circulation. It would be easier for a Western country. Anyway, what these “undetermined security reasons” could be? Probably this is just a clean way to say a dis-information operation. One is left to wonder what more evidence that could clear Syria of the nuclear charge is withheld.

    * OK, what was inside BoE that made the Syrians so anxious after the strike? A possible answer may be found in items recently omitted from the NTI Chemical Chronology :

    21 October 2005 – Jane’s Defense Weekly quotes an unidentified “diplomatic source” alleging that Iran and Syria have concluded an agreement whereby Iran will construct a number of facilities intended to give Syria an independent capability for the production of CW agent precursors, eliminating its current dependence on imports. The report notes that a contract has not yet been officially signed. Iran will reportedly “supply Syria with reactors, pipes, condensors, heat exchangers and storage and feed tanks, as well as NDCAM equipment (to detect CW agents in the air).” The agreement to construct these facilities is allegedly the product of a series of discussions and agreements that began in February 2004. —Robin Hughes, “Iran aids Syria’s CW Programme,” Janes Defense Weekly, 21 October 2005, (http://www.janes.com).

    21 December 2005 – Jane’s Defense Weekly says that Syria and Iran agreed to “allow Iran to safely store weapons, sensitive equipment or even hazardous materials on Syrian soil should Iran need such help in a time of crisis.”

    (Still appears) 26 July 2007 – The great accident at Al-Safir CW Scud facility.

    (Still appears) 6 September 2007 – Israeli strike

    17 September 2007 – According to Jane’s Defense Weekly, Syria and Iran stop working on CW Scuds warheads

    Maybe some Jane’s subscriber kept the relevant issues?

  15. Yossi

    * Sorry, I missed an important point in the last comment.

    Buying exclusive rights on images ordered by someone else is a poor method to prevent circulation of the info. Those who ordered the images probably already got an electronic copy and there is no way to ensure they destroy all the copies they made of it. Even if the company selling the images plays fair and destroy every copy they have it’s a silly and costly move, especially if the images were ordered by an opponent.

    Since it’s unlikely that Syria ordered BoE images from every country of the club of seven prior to the strike or right after it, it’s also unlikely that it’s the culprit in pulling the images from circulation. If it’s not Syria it’s probably one of the many countries that don’t like it, trying to hide some important evidence.

    * An interesting question is why the USIC didn’t present more evidence than the famous presentation and the three ground photos that accompanied it.

    The Syrian saga was discussed in US high level political circles since about half a year before the strike. It’s reasonable to assume the NRO targeted this site and had excellent coverage both before and after the strike. The USIC presentation includes images with perspective distortion indicating they were taken at a very low height, i.e. a UAV. Why some of this excellent imagery was not presented to the IAEA, possibly after blurring it to 0.5m resolution to hide sensitive capabilities?

    We may wonder if the UAVs also took air samples or if multi-band satellite imagery at the time of the strike was analyzed to check consistency with a Magnox reactor blowup. If relevant atmospheric non-absorption windows exist, spectroscopic data could be taken from space. The technical capabilities of the US are legendary so probably all of the above was done. What was the result of the technical analysis, negative?

    It seems the IAEA received insufficient data and the ACW source who reported that “the composite overhead imagery the IAEA has of the site is very good, both in terms of its resolution, frequency and reliability – five states apparently contributed images” didn’t tell the whole story.

    * My guess is that we were witnesses to a Poker game at a high level. The US having bad cards tried to bluff its way to a IAEA decision against Syria. The IAEA stood firm and called its bluff by pointing to the info withheld. Is this the end of the saga? Time will tell.

  16. Cristina Hansell (History)

    I agree with Andy that we should think of the larger goal. First, what would ending technical cooperation with Syria do? Here, one should consider both Syria’s reaction and that of other states. Syria is not likely to provide more or better information on the BoE. As for other states, seems to me that a few might be deterred from following what appears to be the Syrian path, but many would believe this is yet another case of the “haves” preemptively taking out the “have-nots” without evidence.

    Secondly, take a look at the cooperation the IAEA has with Syria: conversion of the MNSR reactor from HEU to LEU fuel, starting up medical isotope production (Mo-99) with LEU targets, as well as potential nuclear power cooperation.

    So let’s see — nuclear power is not likely to be constructed quickly, but we can quickly torpedo conversion of the MNSR to LEU fuel, part of a multinational nonproliferation and anti-terrorism initiative (GTRI). And ending hopes for medical isotope production both looks horrible from a humanitarian standpoint, and certainly does not help bring Western security culture, improved understanding, etc. etc. to Syria (and could force them into the better-known process of using HEU targets, maybe?)

    There certainly are cases where ending cooperation should be an automatic penalty, but I think we have to be very careful about accusations, and consider both the short- and long-term consequences. If IAEA is to reject Syrian cooperation, it has to have an iron-clad legal basis, and should be designed to ensure other nations do not think that the IAEA is picking on a “have-not” nation.

  17. AWR (History)

    @ Cristina Hansell:

    IMHO, you can’t have it both ways – you can’t blow off IAEA safeguards requests for info and benefit from technical cooperation at the same time. The Agency needs to think this out carefully, and the Board, like it or not, will be reluctant, to say the least, in approving projects for Syria that are not clearly related to a development or public health need, like cancer stuff. Despite the flaws in the NPT bargain, there should be no cooperation on TC with Syria until they cooperate on safeguards. The IAEA rarely, if ever, asks for things that are unreasonable.

  18. Cristina Hansell (History)

    I agree the NPT is meant to be a bargain. The difficulty is in what we mean by “benefiting from technical cooperation.” If we mean sales of a nuclear reactor, I’m with you. But if the IAEA TC is in reactor safety… and the reactor is question is one Syria will build itself or with partners whom the IAEA isn’t influencing…

    While an unsafe reactor could put Syria at risk, doesn’t it put the neighbors at risk, too? So my question is what TC should be allowed (continue IAEA cooperation with Syria on medicine? fresh water? not reactor safety?) and how can this be legally sustained so that the incentives for other actors are as positive as we can make them.

  19. Melissa Fleming, IAEA Spokesperson (History)

    AWR: on the subject of Syria and TC, see my letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal, published today:
    In regard to your Nov. 28 editorial “Syria and the Nuclear Cops”:

    The way the international nonproliferation system is meant to work is as follows: If states, many of which have surveillance capabilities, have any suspicions of clandestine nuclear activity, they should report them to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Armed with this information, the IAEA investigates its veracity. In the case of Syria, instead of providing the IAEA with images of a building alleged to be a reactor, Israel unilaterally bombed the installation. Meanwhile, information was withheld from the IAEA for more than six months, by which time Syria had cleaned away the rubble and built a new facility. This made the agency’s verification work difficult and complex.

    The results, so far, are inconclusive and the verification process continues. To aid his inspectors, IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei is calling on Syria to provide maximum transparency. He is also calling on other states, including Israel, that have inexplicably withheld critical information on the site, particularly the images from the immediate aftermath, to provide that information to the IAEA.

    The 35 member countries of the IAEA Board of Governors have agreed to approve a nuclear power feasibility project requested by Syria. Similar IAEA-mandated studies on the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes are being conducted in 20 other countries. The Syria project is at an early stage, and the board may revisit it during its different phases.

    Unlike in the cases of Iraq, Israel, Iran and North Korea, where the agency found these countries to be in violation of its rules and restricted their IAEA technical cooperation projects, the agency has not made any such judgment of Syria. In accordance with principles of fairness and equity, a state has full rights of membership until decided otherwise, based on established facts.

    Melissa Fleming
    International Atomic Energy Agency

  20. Gump (History)

    Melissa Fleming ,

    This issue has been discussed extensively in ACW and in other media before

    September 16, 2007 as I recall.


    Perhaps I have been asleep this past year. What is the critical information withheld from the IAEA that prohibited the immediate investigation? Can you remind us of the date IAEA first submitted a request to Syria to visit the alleged site?

    I remain convinced IAEA chose to stick its head in the sand for 6 months.

  21. Yossi (History)

    I think it’s a great honor for ACW that IAEA choose to post a response here. I hope next time we wouldn’t be bundled with another publication.

    The IAEA objects to a hateful editorial in WSJ, a paper on which Wikipedia says: “Since the 1990s, the editorial page of the Journal has been criticized repeatedly for inaccuracy and dishonesty”. Well, reading this article it seems to me they continue this ignoble tradition.

    A very important point that the IAEA makes is:

    “[The DG] is also calling on other states, including Israel, that have inexplicably withheld critical information on the site, particularly the images from the immediate aftermath, to provide that information to the IAEA.”

    This is a serious accusation that the IAEA wouldn’t have made unless it was very sure of the facts. Some coalition of states is withholding critical information from the IAEA investigation of the Syrian case.

    In the light of recent media reports it seems the said coalition is overlapping with the coalition demanding that Syria will be denied IAEA technical help on grounds of its being under IAEA investigation. Isn’t it strange that those who accuse Syria of non-compliance are hindering the investigation of this same allegation?

  22. Yossi (History)

    People sometimes forget that the IAEA is an enforcement arm of the international law system. As such the IAEA must operate according to time honored legal procedures in order to ensure that justice is being done.

    Justice shouldn’t only be done, it must also be seen, otherwise law and order can’t never be maintained. Taking the law in one’s own hand is a slippery slope to social disintegration.

    We all agree it’s unacceptable to misuse the police as a means for taking revenge on neighbors one doesn’t like. In the same way it’s wrong to manipulate the IAEA against countries one considers evil. In order to prevent harassment of weak states by the stronger ones, maybe intentional false complaints should become punishable in international law.

  23. Allen Thomson (History)

    > Can you remind us of the date IAEA first submitted a request to Syria to visit the alleged site?

    It would be interesting to get a precise and detailed chronology, but public statements indicate that some sort of request was made fairly early:



    [Translated from Le Monde (Paris)]

    By Natalie Nougayrède
    Le Monde
    October 23, 2007 (posted Oct. 22)

    [Le Monde] What comment do you have about the air raids Israel carried out in Syria on September 6? According to the American press, these strikes were aimed at sites where a nuclear reactor was being constructed with equipment that came from North Korea. Are these reports well-founded?

    [El Baradei] At the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), we have received zero, and I emphasize “zero,” information that goes in that direction. We have contacted the Syrians, as well as foreign intelligence agencies. We’ve said: if one of you has the slightest information showing that there were elements tied to nuclear matters, obviously, we would be happy to investigate it.



    Al Baradei To Al-Hayat (2/2): Old And Renewed Nuclear Fears Abdul-Qadeer Khan aided Libya and Iran…No information on Syria’s nuclear program
    By Ghassan Charbel
    January 11, 2008

    [Interview on January 8, 2008]

    [Al-Hayat]Israel launched a strike against a target on Syrian territories claiming that it was linked to North Korea. Is there any information about a Syrian nuclear program?

    [ElBaradei] We have no information about a Syrian nuclear program. I was surprised by this step. If anything had to do with a nuclear program, the Israelis and the Americans must inform us first so we can conduct inspections. The solution cannot be by striking first and then asking questions. Any state that has information about the nuclear program of another state must inform the Agency. So far, we have not received any information about any nuclear programs in Syria. When I spoke to the Syrian brothers, they said that the target was a military facility. I asked for their permission to allow the Agency to visit the facility and to verify that it was not nuclear.

    [Al-Hayat] The Syrians said the target was a military facility?

    [El Baradei] Yes, they said it was a military facility, but I am not concerned with the nature of the military facility targeted as long as it is not within my jurisdiction. Yet, the Syrian brothers did not allow us to visit and inspect the location.

  24. drp (History)

    @ Gump
    “Perhaps I have been asleep this past year.”


    Perhaps indeed. The post to which you have linked and the discussion that it touched off in this forum at the time only reiterates the points that Ms. Fleming made in her op-ed. Clearly, there was a great deal of confusion as to what Syria was doing at the BOE after the attack and for quite some time afterwards. I do not doubt that the speculation was even more creative outside a blog frequented by actual nonproliferation experts.

    The fact remains that no specific allegations were supplied to the IAEA at the time, or for over six months thereafter. Along with the rest of the international community, they were hearing unsubstantiated rumors that the site was home to everything from a cache of weapons intended for Hezbollah to a site for extracting uranium from phosphates.

    On what grounds would you have had the IAEA launch an investigation in the absence of information pointing to some specific violation on Syria’s part of its safeguards agreement? What if it had been a cache of conventional weapons? Would you have the IAEA put its credibility on the line to launch investigations of possible safeguard violations of a completely unspecified nature whenever and wherever they might arise? I suspect that neither its budget nor its mandate would survive such behavior for very long. As Ms. Fleming pointed out in the op-ed, there is a way that this was supposed to go (and could have gone). Step #1 involves member states bringing what they have to the IAEA in a timely fashion so that they can do their work.

    Had specific allegations been made known to them before the strike or even in its immediate aftermath, the Agency would have had a basis for an investigation and inspection requests in advance of Syria’s “landscaping activities.” Instead, they were not notified of suspicions that the site was a budding reactor until April of 2008. You will note that their investigation and formal inspection requests were launched immediately thereafter.

    Allen Thompson’s post suggests (and a source I know that is close to the Agency confirms) that Dr. ElBaradei made informal verbal requests to the Syrians to see what was at the site some months before April, but without any official allegations to back up and justify such a request, he could not pursue the matter in any formal manner. This is not the IAEA “having its head in the sand.” It was available and ready to act, had the decision been made to come to it first.

  25. Gump (History)

    I stand corrected. I offer a sincere apology to any and all.

  26. Allen Thomson (History)

    Oops, I overlooked


    IAEA Press Releases
    Press Release 2007/18
    Recent Media Reports Concerning Syria

    15 October 2007

    Statement attributable to IAEA Spokesperson Melissa Fleming on recent media reports concerning Syria:

    1. The IAEA has no information about any undeclared nuclear facility in Syria and no information about recent reports.

    2. We would obviously investigate any relevant information coming our way.

    3. The IAEA Secretariat expects any country having information about nuclear-related activities in another country to provide that information to the IAEA.

    4. The IAEA is in contact with the Syrian authorities to verify the authenticity of these reports.

  27. AWR (History)

    Melissa compellingly describes the conundrum of no information and the fact that Syria should not be denied TC unless there is non-compliance. But there’s the rub: if informal inquiries by the IAEA, or anything short of a noncompliance finding, don’t produce the required cooperation, nothing happens in the Board meetings. Conversely, a finding of noncompliance can in general produce a chain of events, perhaps including referral to the UNSC, that may not be desirable in the particular circumstance. This is exactly what happened with South Korea. So, as she implies, the IAEA is in a state of limbo with regard to Syria. This is especially true in light of the fact that the Syria TC project is a noncontroversial feasibility study of the sort that the Agency routinely produces. (How many of these studies have been done for Egypt, for example?) My own view is that it’s difficult for the superlawyer ElBaradei to decide on a reasonable course of action while things remain unclear, but it’s certainly necessary to clear up the confusion that is the Syria situation, and it sure doesn’t help the Agency when its official interlocutor is assassinated. The case is further exacerbated by the fact that whatever was found in Syria can’t result in a diversion conclusion because nothing of the sort of material detected from the environmental samples was declared in the first place (nor, possibly, should it have been under strict legal terms, because of the small-quantity exception). And with no AP, the Agency can’t legally ask to go wherever it wants to.

    From the forgoing, it’s obvious I don’t have a specific solution: I wonder what everyone else thinks?

  28. AWR (History)

    Manifest apologies to all: I forgot to mention my appreciation for James’s original post – expository and well-reasoned. This is one great blog.

  29. Allen Thomson (History)

    This isn’t terribly thread-topical, but I’ve just gotten a suggestion that the object at 36.0339 N, 37.3498 E (or the stuff immediately to the NE of it) may be associated with one of the mysterious three other sites.

    I have no idea myself. Any ideas?

  30. Andy (History)


    That’s part of the al Safir complex and is purported to be a Scud support facility with munitions storage. You can find some annotated imagery here .

  31. Allen Thomson (History)

    > That’s part of the al Safir complex

    Thank you. What about this, from DEBKAfile? Ordinarily I don’t give DEBKAf much weight, but this purports to come out of the recent IAEA meeting.


    Covert marine operation uncovers Syria’s return to plutonium production
    DEBKAfile Exclusive Report
    December 5, 2008, 1:21 PM (GMT+02:00)
    The Orontes River, Syria

    In the face of Damascus’ refusal to allow UN inspectors access to three suspect “research laboratories, Western agents recently carried out a daring covert operation to collect water samples from the Orontes river in Syria where it drains into the Mediterranean, DEBKAfile’s intelligence sources reveal. Their discoveries were presented to a closed session of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency’s board on Nov. 27-28.

    Situated on the river bank near Homs is one of the three research institutes where Syrian, Iranian and North Korean technicians and scientists are suspected of reprocessing plutonium for Syria’s clandestine military nuclear program. The Orentes samples confirmed the suspicion that Syria has gone back to the plutonium project which was cut short when Israeli destroyed its reactor at Al Kibar in September 2007.


    The IAEA board meeting was told in general teams how the tainted river samples were obtained. DEBKAfile’s military sources add that western nuclear technicians collected them from a boat which sailed surreptitiously up to the river mouth in Syria. To make sure of their finding, they collected river water on three different dates in the last two months.


  32. Allen Thomson (History)

    Cueing on the DEBKAfile story, I searched Google News for plutonium + Orontes and located an Intelligence Online article. The article itself is restricted to subscribers, but I was able to get the following from the Google news excerpts:

    [Extracted from Google News article excerpts on 2008-12-05]

    Syria’s Secret Nuclear Sites
    Intelligence Online, France
    Dec 3, 2008

    However, the [IAEA] inspectors were barred access to three other sites used for the storage and re-processing of plutonium in Syria. The first reportedly lies in the Homs region close to the Oronte river…

    The two other sites that interest the IAEA are in the hinterland, in the Alaouite-dominated region some 75 km from the border with Turkey…

    FWIW, caveat lector, etc.

  33. Allen Thomson (History)

    >The two other sites that interest the IAEA are in the hinterland, in the Alaouite-dominated region some 75 km from the border with Turkey…

    Which, if I have my Alawite geography right, would be slightly north of Highway 35. Where, perhaps coincidentally, Google Earth shows there has been repeated coverage of an area 4 – 5 km north of Masyaf starting in June of this year and continuing through October.