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The Nuclear Challenge From Syria And Iran – Analysis


By Peter Cannon

The IAEA resolution on Syria

Amid the turmoil in Syria at the moment, the issue of Syria’s nuclear programme has finally been brought to the UN. The International Atomic Energy Agency has reported Syria to the UN Security Council over a suspected secret nuclear programme. The IAEA’s concerns come from Syria’s blocking of any investigation into the Dair Alzour site, which was bombed by Israel in 2007. US intelligence reports indicated that Dair Alzour housed a nascent nuclear reactor, using North Korean designs, which was intended to produce plutonium for atomic bombs. [i] Of the 35-nation board of the IAEA, 17 voted in favour of the resolution rebuking Syria. Six voted against, including China and Russia.

Syria had been referred to the IAEA in 2008, following the Israeli airstrike in 2007. Syria consistently refused to answer the IAEA’s questions or to provide proper access to this and other sites to IAEA inspectors. However, the IAEA has been divided on how to handle Syria. But after the new IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano was elected to office, he sought intelligence material from the US, and sought to verify the information from IAEA sources. The evidence gave weight to the US and Israeli allegations of a Syrian nuclear programme. The IAEA now accepts that Deir Alzour was a nuclear reactor which was under construction at the time of being bombed in 2007. [ii]


Russia argued that the referral to the UN Security Council was unnecessary, on the grounds that: “The site at Deir Alzour no longer exists and therefore poses no threat to international peace and security.” Yet the fact that the site was destroyed by Israel does not change the gravity of the development of a secret nuclear site. The fact that this one site was destroyed does not mean that Syria has given up its nuclear weapon ambitions or that it no longer has a nuclear weapons programme. Syria, for its part, argued that the IAEA should focus its attention on Israel due to its nuclear weapons.

The situation in Syria

This has happened at a time when Syria is under international scrutiny over its brutal repression of domestic opposition. [iii] This seems to have led to a hardening of attitudes among European countries, some of whom were previously reluctant to confront the Syrians over the nuclear issue, which has led to a majority in the IAEA now favouring Syria’s referral to the UN Security Council. [iv] As the IAEA resolution was passed, there were already calls for a separate UN Security Council resolution against Syria for human rights abuses, with the British and French governments saying that they were pushing for “”a resolution at the Security Council condemning the repression and demanding accountability and humanitarian action.” [v]

A draft resolution sponsored by Britain, France, Germany and Portugal – and supported by the USA – is now circulating at the UN Security Council. However, Chinese and Russian diplomats snubbed an official meeting to discuss the resolution on Saturday 11th June. [vi] Russia and China have thus far shielded the Syrian regime from international condemnation and, having expressed their displeasure at NATO’s operation in Libya after abstaining on the vote on the Resolution which authorised it, have indicated that they may veto any resolution on Syria. Other, non-permanent, members such as such as Brazil, South Africa, India and Lebanon are also reported to be unhappy with the resolution and may abstain, as Brazil and India previously did over Libya. [vii] Foreign secretary William Hague has warned that the prospects of a UN resolution on Syria are now “on a knife edge”. [viii] Meanwhile, while UN sanctions seem unlikely, the EU has imposed an arms embargo along with an asset freeze and a visa ban on several Syrian officials, and is considering further sanctions. [ix]

According to Western diplomats in Damascus, the Syrian government is being aided by Iran in its crackdown on pro-democracy protesters. As well as providing advice, a “significant” increase has been noticed in the number of Iranian personnel in Syria since protests began in March. According to one diplomat: “Tehran has upped the level of technical support and personnel support from the Iranian Republican Guard to strengthen Syria’s ability to deal with protesters. Since the start of the uprising, the Iranian regime has been worried about losing its most important ally in the Arab world and important conduit for weapons to Hezbollah.” [x] William Hague commented that Iran was “undoubtedly” helping Assad, supplying “equipment” and advising on how to crush protest. [xi] Opposition to the Syrian regime’s closeness to the Islamic Republic has been one of the themes of the pro-democracy movement in Syria, with demonstrators adopting the slogan: “No to Iran, no to Hezbollah.” [xii]

Iran’s expansion of its enrichment activities

Iran itself chose last week to announce that it will move its production of higher-grade uranium to an alternative, underground, site and triple production activity. Enrichment is to be relocated from the Natanz site to the Fordow site, a mountain bunker near Qom which was discovered by Western intelligence agencies in 2009. With Iran having announced last year that it was raising the level of enrichment from 3.5% to 20% (with the lower level being the level typical for civil nuclear energy, and 90% being the level needed for an atomic weapon), Iran also announced that production capacity is to be tripled. [xiii] Ostensibly, this enriched uranium is to be used for medical research, but the quantities involved are much larger than those needed for Iran’s single research reactor. US ambassador to the IAEA Glyn Davies described this announcement as “the most recent brazen example of (Iran’s) deepening non-compliance” and “yet another chapter in the changing Iranian narrative regarding why this underground facility was built,” while the French Foreign Ministry described it as “a provocation.” [xiv]

The IAEA also de-restricted its most recent report on Iran’s nuclear progress, in which it described “the “possible military dimensions”. It noted that “there are indications that certain (undisclosed nuclear activities) may have continued beyond 2004.” According to the IAEA report, Iran’s suspected activities include “producing uranium metal . . . into components relevant to a nuclear device”; “multipoint explosive initiation and hemispherical detonation studies”; and “missile re-entry vehicle redesign activities for a new payload assessed as being nuclear in nature.” In case anyone was in any doubt about the military dimension of Iran’s nuclear programme, an article that appeared in April on the website of the Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps talks openly about the prospect of an Iranian nuclear test: “The day after the Islamic Republic of Iran’s first nuclear test will be an ordinary day for us Iranians but in the eyes of some of us there will be a new sparkle.” The author goes on to imagine that “the strength of the explosion was not so great as to cause severe damage to the region nor so weak that Iranian scientists face any problems running their test.” [xv]

The ambassadors’ challenge

This was surely an inopportune moment for a group of former ambassadors from different European countries to write an article baldly stating that “Iran is not on breach of international law” and blaming the West for the problem. [xvi] The piece was written by Richard Dalton, the former British ambassador to Iran, Paul von Maltzahn of Germany, Steen Hohwü-Christensen of Sweden, Guillaume Metten of Belgium, François Nicoullaud of France and Roberto Toscano of Italy. The former ambassadors argue that the West has been unreasonable and is mainly responsible for the standoff with Iran. They argue that: “In terms of international law, the position of Europe and the United States may be less assured than is generally believed.”

The ambassadors argue: “Several other countries, parties or not to the treaty, enrich uranium without being accused of ‘threatening the peace’.” This ignores the fact that Iran hid its nuclear programme for eighteen years before it was revealed in 2002, and that Iran has consistently concealed aspects of its programme, such as the Fordow underground site. They argue, based on the US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of 2007, that US intelligence has “discounted the hypothesis” that Iran is attempting to build a nuclear weapon. This is probably an overstatement of the NIE, and also contradicts the IAEA’s recent finding, in contradiction to the Iranian ‘halt’ in 2004 identified by the NIE, that Iranian weapon-related activities continued beyond 2004.

The ambassadors go on to argue: “Most experts, even in Israel, view Iran as striving to become a ‘threshold country’, technically able to produce a nuclear weapon but abstaining from doing so for now.” Even if this were true, Iran having the ability to develop such a weapon when it wanted to still poses a threat. Having this capability will still enable Iran to bolster its influence and to threaten and intimidate its neighbours and its enemies. The ambassadors argue that the West should be more accommodating and ‘realistic’ in the demands it makes of Iran.

With Iran tripling its enrichment capacity and moving its activity to an underground site, and with the IAEA discussing the possible military dimensions of Iran’s programme, this is dangerous advice. The pressure must be kept up on Iran through sanctions if we are not to allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon through international neglect of the challenge. The nuclear programme of Syria, with its close links to Iran must also be investigated.

Iran seems to have taken advantage of the world’s attention being on Libya, and to a lesser extent Syria, to make this announcement now. The Iranians know that, with the Chinese and Russian governments critical of the NATO mission in Libya and so far blocking any condemnation of Syria, there is little prospect of a unified international consensus on strengthening UN sanctions. Because of the vetoes wielded by China and Russia, and the positions ranging from hostile to undecided among other members of the UN Security Council, there seems little immediate prospect of a new Security Council resolution against either Syria or Iran. It is clear that the US, the EU and their allies must continue with their own sanctions regimes, continue increasing the in the case of Iran, and consider using the same model in the case of Syria. If not, then Western nations are in danger of leaving the UN to allow the Syrian and Iranian regimes to continue their nuclear activities and human rights abuses, and of failing to act to prevent Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon until it is too late.

[i] ‘Syria reported to the UN Security Council for secret nuclear programme’, Daily Telegraph, 9th June 2011,

[ii] ‘Syria’s long path to the Security Council’, Jonathan Marcus, BBC News, 9th June 2011,

[iii] ‘Syria: Why does the Obama administration let Assad off the hook?’, Michael Weiss, Telegraph blog, 9th May 2011,

[iv] ‘Syria’s long path to the Security Council’, Jonathan Marcus, BBC News, 9th June 2011,

[v] ‘Syria’s Assad faces new sanctions by UN and European Union’, Barry Neild & Martin Chulov, The Guardian, 8th June 2011,

[vi] ‘Russia and China snub UN Syria talks’, Financial Times, 12th June 2011,

[vii] ‘Syria regime condemned by William Hague and Hillary Clinton’, Simon Tisdall, The Guardian, 13th June 2011,

[viii] ‘UN Syria resolution “on knife edge”‘, Belfast Telegraph, 12th June 2011,

[ix] ‘William Hague calls for UN security council to act against Syrian regime’, Barry Neild, The Guardian, 8th June 2011,

[x] ‘Iran helping Syrian regime crack down on protesters, say diplomats’, Simon Tisdall, The Guardian, 9th May 2011,

[xi] ‘Syria being assisted by Iran, William Hague says’, Andrew Osborn & Richard Spencer, Daily Telegraph, 13th June 2011,

[xii] ‘Syria’s Assad No Longer in Vogue’, Tony Badran, Foreign Affairs, 25th March 2011,

[xiii] ‘Defiant Iran plans big rise in nuclear enrichment’, Reuters, 8th June 2011,

[xiv] ‘World powers concerned over Iran nuclear programme’, Simon Morgan, AFP,

[xv] ‘Iran Nuclear Progress Report’, Wall Street Journal, 11th June 2011,

[xvi] ‘Iran is not in breach of international law’; Richard Dalton, Paul von Maltzahn, Steen Hohwü-Christensen, Guillaume Metten, François Nicoullaud & Roberto Toscano; The Guardian; 9th June 2011;

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