The I.A.E.A. and Syria

“The Agency concludes that the destroyed building was very likely a nuclear reactor and should have been declared by Syria” according to the safeguards agreement.

So writes the International Atomic Energy Agency’s director general, Yukiya Amano, in his May 24, 2011 report to the I.A.E.A. board of governors about the installation the Israeli Air Force bombed in September 2007. Although he does not explicitly say so, Mr. Amano’s finding places Syria in violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Three years in the making, the I.A.E.A. certainly cannot be accused of a rush to judgment.

Now comes the hard part: At its meeting next week, the I.A.E.A. board of governors must decide whether to formally declare Syria in noncompliance with the nonproliferation treaty. Doing so will place the matter before the U.N. Security Council, opening the way for sanctions.

The decision will test whether responsibility overrides timidity. At stake, the agency’s reputation as the world’s nuclear watchdog. To date Damascus has gamed that reputation and succeeded.

For a decade, Syria has been an embarrassment to the I.A.E.A.’s nonproliferation policing responsibility. First the agency’s safeguards failed to detect construction of the plant designed and engineered by North Korea. Even today, the I.A.E.A. knows little about how the installation fit into Syria’s planning. Did Damascus have a secret reprocessing facility to extract weapons-useable plutonium? If not, why not? Did Syria intend to export the spent fuel to North Korea for reprocessing? The international community remains in the dark.

Second, following the Israeli strike, the I.A.E.A. proved very slow off the mark to investigate Damascus. For months, the then director general, Mohamed ElBaradei, ignored media accounts that Syria had built the reactor. Instead, he complained repeatedly that governments failed to provide information. By the time the agency began its investigation in mid-2008, Syria had demolished the remnants of the plant, carted away the debris and built a new non-nuclear structure to conceal evidence of the old.

To its credit, the I.A.E.A.’s inspectors did break the cover-up. Once Damascus refurbished the bombed site, it invited investigators to visit, confident they would find nothing. But inspectors uncovered suspicious nuclear particles.

Rather than follow up with an ultimatum that Damascus fess up or face the U.N. Security Council, the I.A.E.A. dithered, relying on a coaxing strategy to get Damascus to come clean. The Assad regime refused. This marked the third embarrassment.

The agency’s response to Syria’s stonewalling proved to be the fourth embarrassment. The I.A.E.A. froze, much like the deer in the headlights, issuing inconsequential report after inconsequential report. Its February 2011 review, for example, concluded, “Syria has not cooperated with the Agency since June 2008 in connection with the unresolved issues related to the Dair Alzour site and the other three locations allegedly functionally related to it. As a consequence, the Agency has not been able to make progress towards resolving the outstanding issues related to those sites.”

Mr. Amano’s timidity continued even in the May 2011 findings. Rather than affirmatively state that Syria had built a reactor, the director general said that it “was very likely a reactor.” An accompanying footnote said, “Securing absolute proof of compliance” may not be possible, but “reasonable inferences must be drawn, taking to account all the available information.”

The term “reasonable inferences” downplays definitive photos of the reactor made available to the agency by the U.S. government, NGOs and the media many months prior to the May 24 report.

Finally, the agency’s reputation for timidity arguably prompted Israel’s attack. After years of watching the I.A.E.A. fret with Iran, Israel had no confidence the agency would forcefully deal with Syria.

Now that the director general has published his findings, the I.A.E.A. board of governors must decide whether to report Syria to the Security Council. There are reports that Washington and its allies plan to introduce a resolution at the June meeting. But resistance remains. Some board members argue that Israel’s successful strike makes Syria’s nuclear violations moot.

But mootness certainly does not apply to the remaining suspect sites. Furthermore, the I.A.E.A. must get to the bottom of Syria’s atomic enterprise to prevent repeats either in there or elsewhere. The agency must understand what role North Korea and possibly others played.

Unfortunately, getting the board of governors to forward Syria to the Security Council marks only the first step in holding the Assad regime accountable. The Council itself must cobble together a strategy to move Damascus, not an easy task given political divisions.

Yet failure will only encourage prospective nuclear proliferators to follow Syria’s path. If the international community believes in the nuclear nonproliferation regime, it must act with conviction. Syria is a test case.

Bennett Ramberg, a policy analyst in the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs under President George H.W. Bush.

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