Friday, November 2, 2007

Answers Evade IAEA in Syria Case

Could you determine the precise nature of a potential nuclear facility from only the two pictures below? Neither could the IAEA, a senior diplomat said on Wednesday. Despite appeals from IAEA Director General Mohammed ElBaradei, no country has come forward to IAEA investigators with evidence that the facility bombed by Israel on September 6 either was or was not harboring a covert nuclear weapons program.

Before and after satellite images of the site
(photo from the Institute for
Science and International Security)

There have still been few official statements regarding the incident, and those that do exist are contradictory and only raise more questions. Syrian officials including President Bashar al-Assad claim the facility was an abandoned building, and North Korea (not surprisingly) denies a connection. Israeli leaders remain silent on what intelligence led them to attack the site, although Prime Minister Olmert vaguely apologized Monday to Turkey "if" Israeli planes penetrated Turkish airspace. The U.S., having indicated early on that the facility may have been nuclear and linked to North Korea, has provided little additional information. European officials back the North Korea link to some extent, but have not yet supported the claim that the site was nuclear in nature.

If the states that are (allegedly) involved in this debacle refuse to come forward with evidence, we theoretically should turn to the scene of the crime for concrete answers. However, having been bombed (thanks to Israel) and then razed (thanks to Syria), the facility now has little to no evidence left to provide answers to the international community, pending any investigation at the site itself. The only clues available to the IAEA in order to solve the Syrian mystery, then, are the pictures you see above. According to Wednesday's statements from an unnamed diplomat, these will not be enough.

As ArmsControlWonk's Jeffrey Lewis discusses, however, even if evidence proved that the Syrian site was nuclear, it doesn't support the allegation that the facility was based off of North Korea's reactor at Yongbyon. In the picture above, you can see two parts--a large heavily-reinforced cylindrical structure, and a smaller structure to the top-left of it. Those that claim that this was a nuclear facility assert that the smaller part (on the left) is a water-cooling pump station. If this was true, however, it is not modeled off of the North Korea's reactor at Yongbyon, which is gas-cooled. The arguments that this was a nuclear site with a primary water-cooling station, and that it is modeled off of North Korea's site, are irreconcilable.

I'll second Lewis's observation that the "hard" evidence in this case seems a little soft.

Ironically, then, only rule-breaking activity we are certain of was committed by Israel, when it violated UN rules requiring member states to report suspicion of unauthorized nuclear activity to the IAEA. Its silence further reduces the likelihood of answers being found, but beyond that it has now undermined and therefore weakened the primary institutionalized response available to the international community for addressing issues of nuclear proliferation. Vigilante justice and effective institutions don't seem to coexist well.

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