More time needed in Syria nuclear inquiry

The International Atomic Energy Agency needs more time to establish whether Syria was developing a nuclear reactor, according to the head of the agency.

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DUBAI // The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) needs more time to establish whether Syria was developing a nuclear reactor at a facility destroyed by an Israeli air strike, according to the head of the agency. Mohamed ElBaradei told members of the Leaders in Dubai Business Forum yesterday that an IAEA report to be released at the end of the week would draw no firm conclusions about what the site, which was destroyed in Sept 2007, might have been used for.

He confirmed that radioactive material had been found at the site, but said that did not prove it was part of a covert Syrian nuclear programme. "There was uranium there but that doesn't mean there was a reactor - it was not highly enriched and it could have got there in a lot of different ways. We have had inspectors there to take soil samples and we hope to get them back in," he said after the speech.

Mr ElBaradei said the investigation was proceeding slowly, in part because concerns about the site were not raised until after the raid. "We were informed about it after it was unilaterally destroyed - the corpse was gone and it is very difficult to verify after the fact. It would have been 100 per cent easier if we were given information before the bombing." He said greater transparency was needed from Syria, as well as more co-operation from the US in providing satellite imagery of the site before it was bombed.

"We have had some images but we need more help and co-operation from Israel, we need co-operation from everywhere. "We are not going to be able to reach a quick conclusion and jump the gun unless we have absolutely credible information," he said. If Syria had been covertly building a nuclear reactor it would be in violation of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Only four states, Israel, Pakistan, India and North Korea, have not signed the treaty.

Pakistan and India have declared nuclear arsenals, Israel is suspected of having a nuclear capability but has not declared it, while North Korea has tested a nuclear device. Mr ElBaradei said he felt "frustration, despair and fear" at the continued importance of nuclear weapons in world diplomacy. He hoped the US President-elect Barack Obama's stated commitment to actively pursue disarmament would put the world "back on the right track".

"Living with 27,000 nuclear weapons is like having the sword of Damocles over our heads - even 1,000 are enough to destroy the world several times over," he said. "Unfortunately, nuclear weapons bring power, respect and prestige - just compare how the world treated Iraq compared to North Korea. Iraq was obliterated while North Korea went into negotiations because they had nuclear weapons. "We need to end the power and prestige that they bring, and that has to start with the existing nuclear powers. They can't say nuclear weapons are bad for you but we still need them - we cannot carry on like that."

He said he was hopeful that Mr Obama would be able to open dialogue with Iran, but warned that "poverty is the most dangerous weapon of mass destruction of all". "We need to focus on how to act to ensure that the Middle East is empowering its people and lifting them out of misery, and that we are acting as members of one human family," he said. "Iran can't develop nuclear weapons while it is under IAEA verification, but we need to work on building bridges of trust for the future."