Syria on Saturday declared that U.N. nuclear sleuths were barred from revisiting the site of a suspected atomic reactor that was bombed by Israeli jets last year.
The decision dealt a blow to efforts by the International Atomic Energy Agency to follow up on intelligence made available to its experts asserting that Syria was hiding a nuclear program that could be used to make weapons.
Justifying the move, a Syrian Foreign Ministry official told reporters that its agreement with the U.N. agency — which already toured the site in June — allowed only one visit. The official, who was not authorized to talk to the media, spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Syrian statement appeared to be prompted by comments made by diplomats accredited to the Vienna, Austria-based IAEA, who told The Associated Press earlier Saturday that Damascus late last month turned down a request from the agency for a follow-up trip.
A return to the bombed facility — alleged by the U.S. to have been a nearly completed plutonium-producing reactor — would have been on the IAEA agenda. Plutonium can be used as the fissile core of warheads.
But a second trip also was meant to focus on the broader issue of whether North Korea was involved in building the alleged Syrian program.
As well, IAEA officials would have pressed for permission to visit three other sites purportedly linked to the alleged reactor destroyed by the Israelis — although Syria has already said that those locations are off limits because they are in restricted military areas.
The diplomats said the agency investigation is based on intelligence provided to the IAEA by the U.S., Israel and a third country they declined to identify.
Syria denies hidden nuclear facilities
In Vienna, a senior diplomat told the AP that "the Syrians said that a visit at this time was inopportune." He and two other diplomats agreed to discuss the issue on condition of anonymity because their information was confidential.
That appeared to leave open the possibility of a later inspection tour. But one of the other diplomats said members of the Syrian mission to the IAEA were spreading the word among other missions that additional trips beyond the one in June were unlikely.
Syria fears the IAEA probe could lead to a massive investigation similar to the probe Iran has been subjected to for more than five years — and to related fallout. Iran is under three sets of U.N. sanctions because of its refusal to heed Security Council demands to curb its nuclear activities.
The diplomats also said Washington had circulated a note among members of the IAEA board opposing a Syrian push for a seat on the 35-nation board. The board normally works by consensus and if Damascus gained a seat it would likely use it to try to hinder further investigation into its alleged secret nuclear activities.
"Syria's election to the board while under investigation for secretly ... building an undeclared nuclear reactor not suited for peaceful purposes would make a mockery" of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, said the note, as read to the AP.
The diplomats said that the U.S. was encouraging Kazakhstan to challenge Damascus for the seat, but the Kazakhs apparently are reluctant to do so, fearing lack of support from its nominating group of Mideast and Central Asian nations.
IAEA experts came back June 25 from a four-day visit, carrying environmental samples from the Al Kibar site hit by Israel in September. Those are now being evaluated but the results might be inconclusive.
Because intelligence suggests that radioactive material had not yet been introduced into the alleged reactor before it was hit by Israel, swipes taken in search of radioactive traces were unlikely to have been of use.
So, the inspectors also looked for minute quantities of graphite, a cooling element in the type of North Korean prototype that was allegedly being built with help from Pyongyang. Such a reactor contains hundreds of tons of graphite, and any major explosion would have sent dust over the immediate area.
But — if the Syrians were interested in a cover-up — they would have scoured the region to bury, wash away and otherwise remove any such traces. And although U.S. intelligence says the reactor was close to completion, it is possible that graphite elements were not yet installed at the time of the Sept. 6 bombing.
Such uncertainties — and IAEA hopes of being able to visit the other suspected sites — dictated the need for a follow-up mission.
More broadly, IAEA experts were looking to put questions to Syrian officials based on the intelligence made available to them alleging years of extensive cooperation between the Syrians and teams of visiting North Korean nuclear officials.
North Korea detonated a nuclear device in 2006 in a test. The North is believed by experts to have produced enough weapons-grade plutonium to make as many as 10 nuclear bombs before agreeing to dismantle its weapons program early last year.
But the diplomats said Syria was strenuously denying any concerted North Korean presence in the country — despite intelligence alleging that the building bombed was a reactor of the type only built by the communist state.
They said Syrian officials described meetings between nuclear officials from Pyongyang and their Syrian counterparts as occasional and informal, despite intelligence information to the contrary.