Russia resists Western push on Syria nuclear issue

Filed on June 9, 2011

VIENNA - Western powers pressed ahead on Tuesday with a bid to report Syria to the UN Security Council over covert nuclear activity, despite opposition from Russia and some other states, diplomats said.

They said the United States and allies put forward a draft resolution at a board meeting of the UN nuclear watchdog that would rebuke Damascus for its three years of stonewalling a probe into a Syrian desert site destroyed by Israel in 2007.

US intelligence reports have said Dair Alzour was a nascent, North Korean-designed reactor intended to produce plutonium for atomic bombs before it was reduced to rubble.

The UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), giving independent weight to the US allegation, said in a report last month that the facility targeted at Dair Alzour had “very likely” been a reactor.

The proposed resolution on Syria — which is also facing Western sanctions over its violent crackdown on pro-democracy protests — would refer the case to the Security Council in New York if adopted by the IAEA board, the diplomats said.

The agency’s 35-nation governing body, holding a regular June 6-10 meeting in Vienna, was expected to debate the issue later in the week.

“It is a non-compliance resolution,” one senior Western diplomat said, referring to Syria’s international obligations to disclose any nuclear activities to the IAEA.

But several non-Western board members oppose or are doubtful about sending the issue to the Security Council. Some argue that whatever happened at Dair Alzour was now in the past and did not represent a current threat.

Along with Russia, the sceptics include China and some Arab states, diplomats said.

“Obviously the Russians have thrown a spanner in the works,” one envoy from a developing country said.

Warning to Iran?

Western diplomats suggested the draft could still be amended if that would help to win wider support, even though they expressed confidence that they already had enough votes.

Russia and China are especially important because they are among five permanent and veto-wielding members of the Security Council. The others are the United States, France and Britain.

“Some European states and developing countries argue that, if only three of the P5 countries at the IAEA vote in favour of the resolution, and if Arab states oppose it, the resolution will have far less weight,” said proliferation expert Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Russia and China have also resisted a Western call for the Security Council to condemn Syria’s clampdown on anti-government protests, making clear they dislike the idea of council involvement in what they see as a domestic issue.

The IAEA board has the power to 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 harbouring a nuclear weapons programme and says world powers should focus on Israel instead because of its reputed 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 stalling tactic, and said action by the IAEA board was important in order to deter other countries from secret atomic activities.

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