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Iran and Syria: New Nuclear Developments

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Update from AIJAC

November 26, 2008
Number 11/08 #06

As readers will probably have read, analysts looking at the latest International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report into Iran say it appears that Iran has now accumulated enough low-enriched nuclear fuel to make a nuclear weapon if it was further enriched to bomb-grade (though some analysts dispute this). Meanwhile, a report to the IAEA on Syria said of al-Kibar, the site bombed by Israel last September, that not only was some non-natural uranium found there, but that "the features of the building[at the site]... are similar to what may be found in connection with a reactor site." This Update provides more details and analysis of these findings, as well as the IAEA's handling of these issues as its Board of Governors prepares to meet later this week. 

First up is Tel Aviv University proliferation expert Dr. Ephraim Asculai, a former IAEA official himself. He argues that the Syrian findings make it absolutely clear that the Syrian site was a nuclear reactor. He also takes to task his former IAEA employers for not including key information in its analysis, thus apparently allowing Syria the ability to continue to deny that the installation was nuclear. He is particularly effective in dismantling claims the site could have had a "non-nuclear use". Asculai also discusses briefly the IAEA report into Iran, and is particularly critical of routine calls for Iran to "build confidence" in the peaceful nature of the Iranian program at a time when Teheran has effectively ceased all cooperation with the IAEA. For Asculai's full analysis, CLICK HERE.

Next up, Emmanuel Ottolenghi, a scholar who has written much about the Iranian nuclear crisis, discusses what the latest findings about uranium enrichment say about the timeline for stopping a nuclear-armed Iran. He argues that while it is of course the case (as pointed out by a colleague he cites, Gordon Chang), that Iran cannot make a bomb instantly, and would have to do some reconfiguring of its equipment which would take months and be detectable, this does not matter a great deal because Iran's ability to build a nuclear weapon, even if it does not actually do so, is itself a game changer. He argues that there now appears to be no time left for a strategy of engagement with Iran to be effective. For his full argument, CLICK HERE. Further arguments about the likely outcomes of efforts to "engage" Iran by the incoming Obama Administration come from academic Michael Rubin, and analyst and Washington insider Stephen Rosen.

Finally, Patrick Clawson and David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy look in more detail at the IAEA handling of the Syria issue and the possible outcome on this front  of the IAEA board meeting later this week. They point out that, according to the IAEA's own technical work, Syria stands clearly accused of violating Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty rules, has not provided anything remotely convincing to exonerate itself and is refusing all further cooperation with the IAEA. They argue that the IAEA Board of Governors should  refer the Syrian problem to the UN Security Council or at least demand Syrian cooperation, but this is unlikely. Such failure to act would demonstrate the  greater effectiveness of the military means used by Israel (with very little international protest) to end or severely setback the illegal Syrian nuclear program. For all the details of their argument, CLICK HERE.

Readers may also be interested in:

So it Really was a Reactor in Syria

Ephraim Asculai

INSS Insight No. 81,
November 23, 2008

There are two outstanding issues on the table for the forthcoming IAEA Board of Governors meeting: the nuclear programs of Syria and Iran.


The IAEA report on the Syrian issue that finally came out on November 19, 2008 gave a detailed summary of its findings but omitted two important items: the technical details of the sampled uranium particles found in the vicinity of the Syrian reactor site at Dair Alzour (or al-Kibar, as called by US reports) and the unequivocal statement that the site housed a nuclear reactor under construction when it was destroyed on the night of September 6, 2007. By leaving out these two elements, the report gave everyone what it wanted: Syria and its supporters could happily claim that there was no reactor at the site, while others could vary in their conclusions from uncertainty to firm belief that the destruction of the construction prevented or at least delayed Syria from acquiring a military nuclear capability. This ambiguity on the part of the IAEA should have been expected, since it is in line with its organizational culture – try to have something nice to say about member states.

Not all the technical facts detailed in the report are needed to reach the conclusion that the installation housed a nuclear reactor that was nearing operation, much as the US claimed. It is sufficient to note that the report confirmed that the water pumping capacity was sufficient for removing 25 megawatts of energy. An energy source of this magnitude would need to burn either fossil or nuclear fuel, or it would have to consume electrical energy imported to the site. Since the Syrians confirmed "the unreliable and insufficient electricity supplies in the area," the last option is not viable. Since it is obvious that this was not a fossil fuel electricity producing station (and no one claimed that it was) the conclusion is unequivocal. In addition, a fossil fuel plant would have been constructed near the Euphrates River for efficiency reasons and not hidden inland, out of sight. The IAEA chose to state that "While it cannot be excluded that the building in question was intended for non-nuclear use, the features of the building, as described above, along with the connectivity of the site to adequate pumping capacity of cooling water, are similar to what may be found in connection with a reactor site." One cannot but wonder, what could have possibly been the "non-nuclear use"?

Although not essential for the evaluation, the visit to the site and the results of the samples taken showed the presence of a few natural uranium particles that had undergone chemical processing. Natural uranium is used in the North-Korean-type reactor, assessed by the US to have been constructed in Syria. The IAEA chose not to divulge the composition and other characteristics of the uranium particles (information it certainly has, since it assessed the chemical processes), yet thereby confirmed the relationship between the particles and nuclear fuel. Otherwise, it would have certainly noted it. Although the Syrians did their best to clean the area around the site, they evidently did not do a good enough job and a few particles remained on the surface, some of which were detected by the very sensitive analytical methods of the IAEA laboratories.

It is possible that the fact that no graphite particles were found indicates that the bombs did not penetrate the reactor's core, and the source of the uranium particles were the fuel rods waiting to be loaded into the core. If true, this could indicate that the reactor was a short time away from its startup, when hitting it could already cause environmental damage.

The IAEA Director General reiterates his accusation that "the Agency was severely hampered in discharging its responsibilities under the NPT and under Syria’s Safeguards Agreement by the unilateral use of force and by the late provision of information concerning the building at the Dair Alzour site." One can only speculate what would have been the international consequences of such a visit to an operating reactor, or much worse, whether Syria's nuclear program would have been confirmed by a Syrian nuclear explosion.


On the same day in November, the periodic IAEA report on Iran was sent to the Board of Governors. It is a pessimistic report, in which the Director General states that "Regrettably, as a result of the lack of cooperation by Iran in connection with the alleged studies and other associated key remaining issues of serious concern, the Agency has not been able to make substantive progress on these issues."

As expected, Iran has been proceeding tirelessly with its uranium enrichment program, in contravention of Security Council resolutions. It has been enriching uranium up to 5% U-235 enrichment while putting up many more uranium enrichment gas centrifuge machines in its underground Natanz facility and testing new, advanced gas centrifuge enrichment machines. It also prevented the IAEA inspectors from visiting the heavy-water natural uranium reactor under construction at the Arak site. The IAEA assessed that "from a review of such [satellite] imagery, the Agency can confirm that construction of the reactor is continuing."

The Director General concluded his short report by stating that he "continues to urge Iran to implement all measures required to build confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of its nuclear programme at the earliest possible date." It is an almost ludicrous statement coming at a time when almost all cooperation has ground to a halt. Only the bare bones of the required cooperation under the "Full Scope" safeguards agreement remain in place. He stated that gone are the commitments to the Additional Protocol and the modified text of its Subsidiary Arrangements, and any requests for additional access to sites and people remain unheeded.

Given the data published in the report, the assessment that Iran will have the potential to obtain 25 kilograms of Highly Enriched Uranium by the end of 2009 (give or take a few months) remains unchanged. It now seems that the international community is willing to let this happen.

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Ultimate Ultimatum

Emanuele Ottolenghi

Commentary "Contentions" blog
11.21.2008 - 10:44 AM

Writing yesterday about Iran’s nuclear program, Gordon Chang correctly raised an eyebrow on the virtues of dialogue. Of course, it is a matter of speculation what it means that Iran has enough fissile material to build a nuclear bomb if and when it reprocesses it. The fissile material in question is low enriched uranium, and Iran would need to feed it back into its centrifuges to enrich it to weapons-grade. As Gordon notes,
The milestone is merely virtual because Iranian technicians have produced only lowly enriched material with their centrifuges. They would need to reconfigure this equipment and operate it for several months to produce the highly enriched metal needed for the core of a truly destructive bomb.
The question then: how long would this take them? A partial answer comes from the IAEA latest report on Iran, which was leaked two days ago on David Albright’s ISIS website. In the report, IAEA Director General Mohammad ElBaradei writes that, “to date, the results of the environmental samples taken at FEP and PFEP, and the operating records for FEP3, indicate that the plants have been operating as declared (i.e. less than 5.0% U-235 enrichment).” In a footnote, ElBaradei indicates that enrichment levels at the Fuel Enrichment Plant “show enrichment levels … of up to 4.9% U-235.” 5.0% enrichment levels are a critical benchmark. Break that barrier, and covering the remaining ground to reach the 90% enrichment level needed for a nuclear bomb is relatively simple.

Clearly, the report indicates significant progress for Iran’s nuclear scientists and their efforts to cross the threshold of 5 percent. They have enriched “up to 4.9%,” which means they are not very far. How long then before it’s too late? Easter?  Iran’s presidential election in June? The September elections in Germany? How much time do the advocates of engagement have before Iran will put them before a fait accompli?

What will Iran do in the next few months on this front is, of course, anyone’s guess. Once Iran has crossed the 5 percent benchmark, it might leave everyone guessing–or it could increase enrichment levels to, say, 20% and then stop. This would not be, technically speaking, in breach of NPT obligations (though in Iran’s case it is, as five UN Resolutions clearly indicate). It would signal to the world that Iran has the nuclear know how to enrich to weapons-grade, but it does not clarify Iran’s intentions. It would not matter, of course, because the ability to build a weapon alone would be a “game changer,” as President-elect Barack Obama has defined it. Of course, Iran could choose to provoke some more and decide to withdraw from the NPT–a gesture that would leave us guessing even more, because such a move would block any further IAEA inspections. Knowing that Iran has reached a critical threshold and not knowing of any further progress in its program would be even more of a game changer. But it would offer a pretext to the international community to inflict harsher measures on Iran. Finally, Iran could test a weapon–and that would put all matters to rest.

Which is why the notion of engagement at this point is just as virtual as the milestone on which Gordon was commenting. Theoretically, one could make sense of the argument for engagement with Iran. If it succeeded, that would be great; and if it failed, it would provide a better case for the next U.S. administration to call for tougher international efforts against Iran. The problem is that while the US and its allies ‘engage’ Iranian centrifuges continue to spin and enrich. And given the state of progress with Iran’s program, Iran might as well play the role and let us talk until all talk is futile. Only an engagement that rests on a prior Iranian commitment–one that is verifiable–to freeze all enrichment activities can stop the nuclear clock from running in Tehran. And given how Tehran has played its hand so far, nobody can seriously believe this option is in the cards.

The problem with engagement is not its intrinsic weakness - it can sometimes work. The problem with engagement, in Iran’s case at this historic juncture is that there is no time left to try.

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Syria's Reactor: Can the IAEA Act Effectively?

By Patrick Clawson and David Schenker
PolicyWatch #1432
November 21, 2008

High on the agenda of the November 27-28 meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors (BOG) will be the November 19 report from Director General Mohammed ElBaradei about Syria. How the IAEA responds to the Syrian challenge may determine whether future urgent proliferation concerns are taken to the IAEA and UN Security Council or resolved through military force, such as Israel's airstrike last year on Syria's Dayr al-Zor site.


On September 6, 2007, Israeli warplanes bombed a site at al-Kibar near Dayr al-Zor (referred to as Dair Alzour in the IAEA report) in northeastern Syria. Days later, Syria demolished the remaining portions of the damaged facility, bulldozed the site, and erected a new building atop the buried rubble. On April 24, 2008, senior U.S. intelligence officials briefed Congress and the press about the Dayr al-Zor site, saying that the United States had "detailed information showing that the al Kibar facility was a nuclear reactor."

Following the briefing, Syria granted IAEA inspectors access to Dayr al-Zor (but denied them access to three other sites), where they took environmental samples on June 23, 2008. After the visit, Syria suspended cooperation with the IAEA, saying it was awaiting the results of the samples. Despite all that Damascus had done to scrub the site, IAEA soil samples revealed "a significant number of natural uranium particles" that were "anthropogenic," that is, produced by human action rather than being already present in the environment.

Since then, Syria has refused to respond to IAEA requests for additional information. In its defense, Syria told the IAEA that particles found at the site "were contained in the missiles that were dropped from the Israeli planes onto the buildings." These claims have been widely dismissed, however, as no country is known to have ever used natural uranium in a bomb or a missile.

The IAEA and Syria

Syria's safeguards agreement with the IAEA requires notification to the agency in advance of construction of any nuclear facility, regardless of the presence of nuclear material. So, if indeed Syria was building a reactor, it would have violated its IAEA obligations. Not surprisingly, Syria has claimed that the site was not a reactor, but Damascus has not made much of a case on its own behalf. As the IAEA report notes, "Syria has not yet acceded to the Agency's request to provide any documentation relevant to the destroyed building, or any of the other buildings, to support its statements." Damascus also said that the site could not have been a reactor because of "the unreliable and insufficient electricity supplies [and] the unavailability of large quantities of treated water." Yet, according to the IAEA report, the water "pumping capacity is adequate for a reactor of the size referred to" and the site had "sufficient electrical capacity to operate the pumping system."

While the very construction of a reactor without notification violates Syria's international treaty obligations, evidence of nuclear material at the site significantly raises the level of concern. The natural uranium found by the IAEA is the type of fuel that would be fed into a reactor to produce plutonium, which after extraction in a reprocessing facility, could fuel a nuclear bomb. At a minimum, the presence of the natural uranium particles suggests that fuel for the reactor may have been on site when the facility was bombed.

Violations of International Commitments

The Bashar al-Asad regime's apparent violations of Syria's nuclear nonproliferation treaty commitments are only the latest in a series of broken agreements. In his eight years as president, al-Asad has established an impressive history of broken pledges to Washington. Two examples provide illustration:

In June 2001, then Secretary of State Colin Powell traveled to Damascus with the express goal of securing a Syrian commitment to end the smuggling of oil from Saddam Hussein's Iraq in contravention of the UN Oil for Food program. Powell hoped to close the Kirkuk-Banyas pipeline that supplied Damascus with 150,000 barrels per day of Iraqi crude and Saddam with hundreds of millions of dollars. According to Powell, al-Asad agreed to close the pipeline but reneged on this promise, and the pipeline remained open until 2003, when U.S. forces in Iraq closed the spigot. Secretary Powell again traveled to Damascus, in April 2003, this time to gain a Syrian commitment on terrorism. In an interview following his return, Powell relayed that " al-Asad said that he was taking action to close down these [Damascus-based Palestinian terrorist] offices, and that he would restrict their ability to communicate." Nevertheless, these offices continued to operate; five months later, in August 2003, a Palestinian Islamic Jihad suicide bomber killed twenty-three in Jerusalem.

The al-Asad regime's pattern of broken bilateral agreements with Washington -- and now, of international treaty obligations to the IAEA -- raises doubts about whether Syria can be trusted to implement the terms of a peace treaty with Israel. At a minimum, these experiences should inform Washington's policy should the next administration decide to actively mediate in Syrian-Israeli peace negotiations. Based on the al-Asad regime's record of keeping commitments, Washington cannot effectively guarantee Syrian treaty obligations to Israel. As such, within the context of any U.S.-brokered deal, Washington should ensure that tangible and irreversible Syrian concessions coincide with -- if not precede -- Israeli territorial withdrawals.

Judging the IAEA Meeting

The November 19 IAEA report is the latest evidence of the superb technical capabilities of the IAEA staff. Regrettably, however, this work has at times been undercut by IAEA director general ElBaradei, who has a tendency to emphasize benign interpretations of ambiguous findings while ignoring mechanisms available for suspected proliferators to provide evidence to the contrary. The real shortcoming with the international law approach, however, has been the failure of will by the governments that sit on the IAEA BOG and the Security Council.

Next week's meeting will answer longstanding questions regarding the utility of the IAEA for resolving nuclear problems. If Syrian stonewalling continues, how will the IAEA proceed? Will the BOG recommend sanctions if the investigation yields derogatory conclusions or if Syria continues to put forth implausible explanations unsupported by evidence?

A serious response by the IAEA BOG would be to warn Syria that failure to resolve the outstanding issues on a timely basis would constitute a violation of Syria's obligations, which the IAEA would have to report to the Security Council for action by that body. At a minimum, the BOG should demand documentation of Syria's claims about the destroyed building and follow-up inspections of Dayr al-Zor and access to the three facilities to which Syria denied the IAEA. The unfortunate reality is that the IAEA/Security Council approach has, to date, not dealt effectively with several proliferation threats. In contrast, Israeli military action resulted in the complete destruction of the reactor site and evidently to an indefinite postponement if not abandonment of Syria's nuclear ambitions. Moreover, the Israeli action was tacitly accepted by the international community: no Arab country (other than Syria) and no European government complained about the Israeli raid. Even the Arab League statement was mild.

International reaction to Israel's al-Kibar strike stands in stark contrast to its 1981 raid on the Iraqi Osiraq reactor, which was nearly universally condemned. One way to understand the difference between 1981 and 2007 is that the world today is less optimistic that reliance on the IAEA can stop proliferation. The IAEA can change this perception by acting decisively on Syria during its next meeting. And in the process, it just might generate enough credibility regarding IAEA effectiveness to forestall an airstrike -- Israeli or American -- against Tehran's nuclear facilities.

Hovering in the background is Syria's tentative reopening of peace talks with Israel. The November 20 Financial Times nicely summed up the situation, describing these talks as "a get-out-of-jail-free card [when] Syria has not changed its regional behavior. [French president] Sarkozy, nonetheless, invited [Assad] to a summit in Paris. . . . The message this sends to the Middle East is disastrous."

Patrick Clawson is deputy director for research at the Washington Institute; David Schenker is a senior fellow and director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Institute.

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