Syria: Ups and Downs of Special Inspections

The verification provisions of many arms control or nonproliferation treaties involve some version of the “special inspection.” Under whatever name, it comes down to the ability to inspect an undeclared site. There are invariably limits on these provisions, since the parties have legitimate interests in keeping unrelated secrets and in not having government or commercial activities disrupted excessively by short-notice visits from outside.

But probably the biggest checks on special inspections are unwritten. One is the concern that, once the provision is used by a state party, it could invite retaliatory uses that might prove embarrassing, intrusive, disruptive, or just humiliating. Many governments are sensitive about their national sovereignty and don’t wish to set any precedents.

Another concern is that use of the special inspection provision could prompt a refusal, leading to a withdrawal from the treaty, perhaps leading to an unraveling of the regime. As a result, these provisions are used only very sparingly, if ever. (Has there _ever_ been a challenge inspection, as it is called, under the Chemical Weapons Convention?)

So it’s encouraging to see former IAEA official Pierre Goldschmidt — along with noted experts Mark Fitzpatrick and James Acton — calling on the IAEA to conduct a special inspection in Syria under the terms of its nuclear safeguards agreement.

An (extremely) abbreviated version of their statement appeared as a “letter in the IHT”:http://www.iht.com/articles/2009/02/26/opinion/edletters.php. The whole thing is “here”:http://carnegieendowment.org/publications/index.cfm?fa=view&id=22791&prog=zgp&proj=znpp.

This topic has already been “kicked”:http://www.armscontrolwonk.com/2090/traces-of-uranium-at-alkibar “around”:http://www.armscontrolwonk.com/2071/mining-and-the-boe at “ACW”:http://www.armscontrolwonk.com/2106/new-evidence-of-nork-syria-link.

On The Other Hand

Gaming it out a bit, though, it’s doubtful their advice will be taken. “The Syrians seem disinclined to come clean”:http://www.totalwonkerr.net/1881/update-from-the-pencil-factory, and the international community may lack the stomach to undertake a protracted confrontation, with referral to the Security Council, sanctions, and so forth. Without at least one of these conditions in place, pushing for special inspections could do more harm than good.

As others have argued, proceeding regardless could set a good precedent by making this type of activity more routine. But we can assume that the Syrians have learned a thing or two from the past experiences of Iraq, Iran, Egypt, South Korea, North Korea, and (of course) Syria itself. Special inspections at well-scrubbed sites that turned up nothing could further deplete the will to pursue the matter. Following this line of thought, precedent-setting special inspections might be better done elsewhere, where less is at stake.

For these reasons, cautious officials at the IAEA could easily conclude that the risk of a setback to the NPT regime wasn’t worth it. I’m not endorsing this point of view, assuming anyone actually holds it, but it seems understandable. Of course, there also seems to be something rather less calculated in play — sheer pique that Israel bombed al-Kibar rather than tipping off the IAEA, and that the U.S. stayed mum, too.

Two Strikes

If the IAEA does continue to duck calls for special inspections, it would be a shame, because it would mean losing the best remaining chance to investigate the “three mystery sites”:http://www.totalwonkerr.net/1865/more-than-you-wanted-to-know-about-magnox. That’s strike two.

What was strike one? Despite the efficacy of swipe sampling, Syria has managed to deny the international community any truly thorough opportunity to investigate al-Kibar. The simple acts of clearing the site, laying a concrete foundation, erecting a new structure, and declaring it be a military facility have sealed its contents away from the eyes of outsiders. “What do you suppose is under that slab”:http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1023119.html?

One of the reasons I was skeptical of early reports that the mystery building was a reactor was how little time it took to make it all vanish. Large amounts of rubble and the major structures of a reactor couldn’t be whisked away undetected quite so quickly, right? But as it happened, “the main structures were in a deep basement”:http://www.armscontrolwonk.com/1864/why-now to begin with. And there is no reason to assume that they were completely removed.

Actually getting at this stuff would give fresh meaning to phrases like “destructive assay”:http://www.hss.doe.gov/nuclearsafety/ns/techstds/tsdrafts/sans0001/sans0001.pdf and “nuclear archaeology”:http://www.princeton.edu/%7Eglobsec/publications/pdf/3_3-4Fetter.pdf. But when would the Syrian authorities allow such a thing? Under most circumstances, the basis of the nonproliferation regime is consent. So in the absence of an extraordinary exercise of coercive power — the sword of Damocles suspended over Iraq during the UNSCOM era, let’s say — no inspection power is quite special enough.

At the mystery sites, though, no such entombment has taken place. Or so I’d hope.

Let’s sum up.

It’s fascinating out here in wonk-land to observe the unfolding of this particular nuclear-forensic drama. But the bottom line is, as long as the big powers are not of one mind on the importance of nuclear nonproliferation, the international bureaucrats probably aren’t going to stick their necks out too, too far.

And that is bad news.

“Musical bonus”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wCBRohCCewM.

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