The former chief inspector of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Olli Heinonen, is calling for the IAEA to conduct a “special inspection” of Syria’s nuclear facilities, a surprise move that could prove to be a major embarrassment for Syria and its alleged nuclear partners Iran and North Korea.
Heinonen played a key role in uncovering Iran’s clandestine nuclear weapons research as the IAEA’s deputy director for safeguards, so his credentials when it comes to exposing illicit nuclear weapons research are second to none. He left the IAEA and joined the Belfer Center at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of government last September.
The IAEA has the authority to conduct special inspections “when the IAEA judges the information provided by a state to be inadequate,” Heinonen wrote in a policy paper for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on Friday.
Because these inspections are intrusive and politically sensitive, the agency is reluctant to conduct them, “even though, in the case of Syria, circumstances cry out for one,” he wrote.
On Sept. 6, 2007, the Israeli air force carried out bombing raids that destroyed a clandestine nuclear site in Syria that was believed to be an exact duplicate of North Korea’s Yongbyon plutonium production reactor.
Israeli jets participating in Operation Orchard, as the secret Israel attack was called, reportedly killed a number of Iranian and North Korean nuclear experts who were present at the Syrian facility, located in the desert near Deir es-Zor.
Heinonen said that information available to the IAEA warranted a special inspection not only of the destroyed site at Deir es-Zor but also of “other locations that could be functionally related to it or that may have information useful for clarifying what was going on there.”
Syria bulldozed the site after the Israeli strike in an attempt to remove all evidence of nuclear activity. But in a visit well after the Israeli air strike, IAEA inspectors found uranium particles in the rubble. In addition, “satellite imagery and procurement information point toward possible construction of a nuclear reactor” at the site,” Heinonen wrote.
“If it was a nuclear reactor, this would have been the first time that an IAEA member state and a [Non-Proliferation Treaty] signatory constructed a plutonium production reactor on such a scale without reporting it to the IAEA,” he added.
“Together with official Syrian reluctance to give the agency access to relevant information, persons, equipment, and sites, the resulting situation calls for the use of full inspection rights to ensure that all nuclear material in Syria is for peaceful purposes,” Heinonen wrote.
In February 2008, Heinonen presented evidence to the IAEA board of governors revealing that Iran had conducted tests of a nuclear weapons design five years earlier.
The documents included an internal Iranian government PowerPoint report detailing progress on a missile re-entry vehicle that appeared to have been specially designed to carry a nuclear warhead. They also included evidence of ongoing clandestine procurement of nuclear materials, and information on nuclear facilities Iran had never declared to the IAEA.
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