THE BLOG
09/13/2010 03:12 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Syria's Challenge to Nuclear Proliferation and What IAEA Could Do

"Syria has not cooperated with the Agency since June 2008 in connection with the unresolved issues related to the Dair Alzour site and the other three locations allegedly functionally related to it. As a consequence, the Agency has not been able to make progress towards resolving the outstanding issues related to those sites."

So concludes the September 6, 2010 International Atomic Agency report revealing the nuclear investigative dead end bearing on suspect Syrian nuclear activities. Simply reissuing the conclusion, as IAEA does on a quarterly basis, marks a policy to nowhere. The time is long overdue for the nuclear watchdog to take a more assertive stand not simply to hold Damascus accountable for past and continued nuclear cheating but to use Syria as an example to buttress the flailing nonproliferation regime. IAEA can start this week at the Board of Governors meeting.

Syria's nuclear weapons ambitions came to light in September 2007 when Israeli aircraft destroyed what had been a concealed nuclear weapons reactor. Subsequent revelations by American intelligence and media uncovered a number of troubling facts. First, IAEA safeguards had failed to detect even a inkling of Syria's nuclear cheating. The failure continues a pattern found elsewhere--Iraq (in the 1980s), Libya and Iran--raising troubling questions about NPT safeguards generally. Second, even when evidence reveals a nuclear violator, Syria demonstrates IAEA impotence to force transparency or reverse behavior. Indeed, Damascus has done Tehran one better: following its sole material concession--granting inspectors access to the bombed reactor site, but only after Syrian engineers had carted away debris and placed a new building over the plant's footprint to conceal evidence--it repeatedly has said "no" to IAEA requests to provide additional information about past and current nuclear activity and gotten away with it.

The collusion of other countries in Syria's venture remains equally troubling. North Korea provided reactor technology and Iran, financing. Tehran's contribution marks the first time an NPT party helped another to develop a weapons capacity.

The implications for the region are not hard to foresee. Fast forward a decade or two. Nuclear energy has spread across the Middle East implementing plans begun in 2010 or earlier: Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and others have in place the skeleton for a weapons program shrouded by "peaceful" energy reactors. Suspicions mount. Rumors spread about hidden weapons activities. IAEA either remains clueless or inspectors report concerns to a sclerotic Board of Governors. Governments and pundits express dismay: how did we get to this point?

This week IAEA's Board of Governors can act to promote a different history by confronting Syria. The Board has the ability to do so by calling for a "special inspection" of all suspect Syrian sites as provided by the safeguards agreement the Agency entered into with Damascus: "If the Agency considers that information made available by the State, including explanations from the State and information obtained from routine inspections, is not adequate for the Agency to fulfill its responsibilities under the Agreement..." it may order "special inspection." Discovery of nuclear contraband would demand elimination.

Were Syria to balk, the Board of Governors should declare Damascus in noncompliance and send the matter to the Security Council to take action including sanctions. No doubt the course will bring out the cynic in many of us. After all, Iran's continuing sanctions defiance and North Korea's success in detonating a nuclear weapon despite economic penalties and political isolation suggest sanctions offer little.

But this may misread history. At times, sanctions worked to halt nuclear efforts. They helped defeat Iraq's inclinations after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. They stunted Libya's nuclear program. And because Syria remains economically weak, sanctioning Damascus can bring results. Swift and robust application--rather than the Council's historic incremental approach--can make the strategy work. The alternative--more toothless IAEA reports--will only set the stage for a proliferating world none of us can wish for.