DAMSCUS // The United Nations atomic watchdog has warned it might seek to force a special inspection of an alleged nuclear facility in Syria unless Damascus allows its scientists and investigators to carry out more tests at the site.
Yukiya Amano, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said use of intrusive inspection measures against Syria remained a possibility. The process, which would operate under a UN Security Council mandate and allow investigators to go anywhere in the country at short notice, has only previously been used against North Korea and Romania.
"In Syria, special inspection is of course one of the options but for now I am continuing to request Syria to provide access and will continue to do so for now. For the future, as I said, I am open," Mr Amano told the Council on Foreign Relations in New York on Tuesday.
He also went further than the IAEA has previously gone in suggesting the suspect site, in al Kibar, a location on the Euphrates River in north-eastern Syria, was an under-construction nuclear facility, something Syria vehemently denies.
An IAEA team was granted access to the disputed area in 2008, when it collected soil samples containing unaccounted for atomic material.
"We found that they are particles of man-made uranium," Mr Amano said. "But up to today we cannot identify what is the origin. Judging from the information that we have, we think that it is possible, or quite possible, that it was a reactor."
Syria has rejected claims it was pursuing a clandestine nuclear programme in al Kibar, saying it was a normal military facility and therefore should not be opened to outside oversight under IAEA rules. Without a special inspection mandate, UN teams have no automatic right to go there and, since the 2008 visit, they have not been granted permission to return.
The alleged reactor was destroyed in an Israeli air force raid on IN 2007. Following the bombing, the Syrian authorities quickly dismantled the remains and allegedly built a new structure over the site.
In his memoir, Decision Points, published this week, the former US president George W Bush said his Israeli counterpart, Ehud Olmert, had telephoned and asked that the US bomb the facility.
Mr Bush said US intelligence had "low confidence" it was a nuclear-weapons compound and therefore ruled out either an airs trike or staging a risky covert ground attack by US special forces.
"I cannot justify an attack on a sovereign nation unless my intelligence agencies stand up and say it's a weapons program," the former president quotes himself as saying. Instead, Mr Bush claims he urged the Israeli leader to follow a diplomatic route.
Mr Bush also denied giving Israel, a close ally of the US and long at war with Syria, approval to attack.
"Prime Minister Olmert hadn't asked for a green light and I hadn't given one. He had done what he believed was necessary to protect Israel," the former US president says in the book.
US intelligence now claims the bombed site was a North Korean-designed nuclear reactor, in a fairly advanced stage of construction. Glyn Davies, the US envoy to the IAEA, this summer proposed carrying out a Security Council-enforced special inspection on Syria, saying the matter could not be postponed indefinitely.
Damascus insists it has given the required co-operation to the IAEA and views the nuclear inspections as a political tool, being used against it because of its continued defiance of the US and Israel in their Middle East policies.
Umran Zaubie, a member of Syria's ruling Baath Party, brushed off suggestions special inspections could be used, saying the nuclear affair was a "political comedy".
"Syria is not concerned about this nuclear file," he said. "The Americans want to make problems, they see this as a bargaining chip against Syria and Syria does not worry about this."
Mr Zaubie repeated claims by the Syrian authorities that any suspected nuclear material found at al Kibar must have been contained in the Israeli bombs dropped on it.
"Instead of wasting time on Syria, the IAEA should force an inspection of Israel's nuclear sites," Mr Zaubie said. "Israel has unclear weapons that are real and a threat to the world."
Israel is believed to be the only nuclear-armed country in the Middle East and has never submitted to IAEA oversight, to the chagrin of Arab states.
Syria says it supports a nuclear-weapon-free region, with all states allowed to build peaceful nuclear-power reactors.