- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 20, 2008

VIENNA, Austria

The U.N. nuclear watchdog agency said Wednesday that a Syrian site bombed by Israel in 2007 had the characteristics of a nuclear reactor. It also admitted that its investigation into Iran’s purported nuclear weapons program is deadlocked.

The conclusions are contained in two confidential reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency that are being shared with the 35 nations on the IAEA’s board.

The report on Iran — which also went to the U.N. Security Council — cautioned that Tehran’s stonewalling meant the IAEA could not “provide credible assurances about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities.” And it noted that the Islamic Republic continued to expand uranium enrichment, an activity that can make both nuclear fuel or fissile warhead material.

While that conclusion was expected, it was a formal confirmation of Iran’s refusal to heed Security Council demands to freeze such activities, despite three sets of sanctions meant to force an enrichment stop.

Iran denies weapons ambitions, and Syria asserts the site hit more than a year ago by Israeli warplanes had no nuclear functions. But the two reports did little to dispel suspicions about either country.

On Syria, the agency also said that soil samples taken from the bombed site had a “significant number” of chemically processed natural uranium particles. A senior U.N. official, who demanded anonymity because the information was restricted, said the findings were unusual for a facility that Syria claims had no nuclear purpose.

The same official characterized U.N. attempts to elicit answers from Tehran on allegations that it had drafted plans for nuclear weapons programs as at a standstill.

The Syrian report said “it cannot be excluded” that the building destroyed in a remote stretch of the Syrian desert on Sept. 6, 2007, was “intended for non-nuclear use.”

Still, “the features of the building … are similar to what may be found in connection with a reactor site,” it said, suggesting the facility’s size also fits that picture.

The report took note of Syrian assertions that any uranium particles found at the site must have come from Israeli missiles that hit the building, near the town of Al Kibar. And it cited Damascus officials as saying the IAEA samples contained only a “very limited number” of such particles.

But the report spoke of a “significant number of … particles” found in the samples.

Satellite imagery made public in the wake of the Israeli attack noted that the Syrians subsequently removed substantial amounts of topsoil and entombed the building in concrete. But the report also suggested similar activities at three other Syrian sites of IAEA interest.

On Iran, the document said Tehran had not significantly expanded full or partial operation of nearly 4,000 centrifuges at its cavernous underground facility at Natanz, a city about 300 miles south of Tehran. But it said the Islamic Republic was installing, or preparing to install, thousands more of the machines that spin uranium gas to enrich it - with the target of 9,000 centrifuges by next year.

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