Foreign Policy Blogs

Syrian Nuke Program Tied to A.Q. Khan As It Continues to Stonewall IAEA On Inspections

Syrian Nuke Program Tied to A.Q. Khan As It Continues to Stonewall IAEA On Inspections

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and a satellite image of the facility in Al-Hasakah. Photo: AP/GeoEye

It looks like, despite all the denying on the part of the Syrian government, its stonewalling of the IAEA inspectors, and, of course, the tap dance by Pakistani nuke weapons program grandfather Dr. Khan himself, the IAEA has come up with new allegations that a previously unknown complex in Al-Hasakah, near the Iraqi border, “appears to match Khan’s designs for a uranium enrichment plant that were sold to Moammar Gadaffi’s government in Libya”. The Agency has also has obtained correspondence between Khan and a Syrian government official, Muhidin Issa, who proposed scientific cooperation and a visit to Khan’s laboratories following Pakistan’s successful nuclear test in 1998. Unfortunately, because of the lack of cooperation on the part of the Syrian government, the IAEA is forced to perform all manner of investigation and cat and mouse games in order to come up with a complete story. The information is based on satellite photos of the site provided to the IAEA in 2009.

According to an exclusive AP report, , there is no evidence that the plant was ever used for nuclear purposes, but its design, combined with the existence of a second suspected nuclear facility bombed by Israeli warplanes in 2007, suggests a strong possibility that Syria was at one point pursuing nuclear-weapons capability much more vigorously than was previously supposed. The facility is currently being used as a cotton-spinning plant. However, there has long been speculation that Khan offered nuclear technology to Syria – speculation fuelled by the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s admission to an Austrian newspaper in 2007 that the Pakistani expert had contacted government officials but Syria did not respond.

However, the unlikely coincidence in design suggests Syria may have been pursuing two routes to an atomic bomb: uranium as well as plutonium. IAEA investigators already contend that the Dair Alzour site that was bombed by Israeli warplanes in 2007 was a plutonium production reactor. The Syrian government continues to block IAEA inspections of Dair Alzour.

To shed more light on the subject, Mark Hibbs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace does a helpful Q&A regarding this latest revelation.

But more importantly, Mark puts a fine point of why the Syria story really matters: “The allegations surrounding Al Hasakah underline the challenges in preventing the spread of uranium enrichment capabilities. If a country with a track record of poor compliance with IAEA safeguards obtains this know-how, without its binding consent to allow international inspections and provide information about specific activities, it might be virtually impossible for the IAEA to get to the bottom of any allegations that that country is secretly enriching uranium.”

Indeed, I have written about efforts by the House Committee on Foreign Affairs (HCFA) to change U.S. law to better control the spread of enrichment and reprocessing technologies in H.R. 1280. While the bill may not go anywhere in the House, its introduction has put a marker down which indicates that Members of Congress are still concerned about the spread of these weapons-making technologies.

 

Author

Jodi Lieberman

Jodi Lieberman is a veteran of the arms control, nonproliferation, nuclear terrorism and nuclear safety trenches, having worked at the Departments of State, Energy and Nuclear Regulatory Commission. She has also served in an advisory capacity and as professional staff for several members of Congress in both the House and Senate as well as the Senate Homeland Security Committee. Jodi currently spends her time advocating for science issues and funding as the Senior Government Affairs Specialist at the American Physical Society. The views expressed in her posts are her views based on her professional experience but in way should be construed to represent those of her employer.

Great Decisions Discussion group