Is ElBaradei playing us for suckers?


The ongoing mystery over a Syrian nuclear program continues to interest the international media. In September 2007 Israel destroyed what appeared to be a nuclear facility in Syria, and in April 2008 the CIA released photographs suggesting that what had been destroyed was a clandestine reactor built in collaboration with North Korea.  

The French daily Le Monde has just published a piece saying it has information from "several non-American sources" corroborating the CIA revelations. The newspaper says that among its sources of information are "satellite photos provided by various countries" and other information from "[International Atomic Energy Agency] investigations of North Korean nuclear activities" and "from research carried out by the IAEA on clandestine networks for acquiring nuclear equipment throughout the world."

More disturbing however, is the apparent contradiction between the report in Le Monde and what the IAEA director general, Mohammed ElBaradei, told the Al-Arabiya satellite channel. In a report on the interview from Reuters, ElBaradei is quoted as saying: "We have no evidence that Syria has the human resources that would allow it to carry out a large nuclear program. We do not see Syria having nuclear fuel."

Perhaps, but the article in Le Monde tells us that "two central questions will occupy IAEA inspectors: Where was the fuel for the Al-Kibar reactor [in Syria] supposed to come from? And is there a secret facility in Syria that allows the retreatment of spent fuel? Retreatment is a technology that permits the production of plutonium that can be used in the manufacture of a nuclear weapon. It is by this method that the North Koreans built an atomic weapon which they tested in 2006."

In other words, ElBaradei in his Al-Arabiya interview said that the IAEA did not see Syria as having nuclear fuel, whereas the Le Monde report suggests that the IAEA is investigating whether the fuel may, in fact, have been retreated at a facility inside Syria. I don't pretend to be an expert here, and perhaps ELBaradei is cleverly walking between raindrops in being vague. Perhaps, as Le Monde suggests, he is even protecting the IAEA from accusations that its inspection regime is ineffective. However, if Syria has the means to retreat spent nuclear fuel, or if the IAEA is still looking into that possibility, that's quite different than the more affirmative statement by ElBaradei underlining that his institution does not believe Syria has nuclear fuel.