Some in U.S. Think Syria Has Atomic Centrifuges -Sources
Wed May 5, 2004 06:36 AM ET
By Louis Charbonneau
VIENNA (Reuters) - Some members of the Bush administration believe Syria has centrifuges that can purify uranium for use in bombs, though the intelligence community is divided on the issue, diplomats and experts told Reuters.
Last week, U.S. Undersecretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton said Adbul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani scientist who sold nuclear technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea, had "several other" customers who may want the bomb. Western diplomats in Vienna said Bolton was clearly referring to Syria.
One atomic energy expert, who follows nuclear intelligence closely, said Bolton leads a faction in President Bush's administration that believes they have strong evidence Syria is operating uranium-enrichment centrifuges.
But a U.S. official, who asked not to be named, warned the intelligence on Syria had not dispelled all doubts.
"Those who are pushing the idea that Syria has centrifuges have been held back by other members of the inter-agency community who question the veracity of the claim," he said.
Several Western diplomats who follow the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), have been saying for months that Syria was a customer of Khan's.
"Syria certainly had contact with Khan," said a non-U.S. Western diplomat, adding that suspicions of Syrian research in atomic weapons have existed for decades.
Since Washington began its post-September 11 policy of aggressively pursuing countries it believed had weapons of mass destruction that could be used against the United States and its allies, it has repeatedly issued warnings about Syria.
In the Central Intelligence Agency's most recently published report on Syria from June 2003, the CIA said: "We are looking at Syrian nuclear intentions with growing concern."
But several sources said not everyone in the U.S. intelligence community and government is certain Syria has operating centrifuges. Likewise, one of the sources said not even Syria's arch-foe Israel is convinced.
"There is disagreement within the intelligence community about whether Syria has operating the U.S. and with the Middle East," the atomic energy expert said.
Syria, which has publicly called for a Middle East free of nuclear weapons, dismissed the allegations.
"This can only be part of a campaign of absolutely baseless accusations against Syria," a Syrian official told Reuters in Damascus. "Syria has no program to acquire...nuclear weapons."
The U.S. official said some feared pressuring Syria now may undermine relations with Damascus when it is starting to cooperate on sealing its border to militants crossing into Iraq.
Centrifuges can be used to purify uranium for use as nuclear fuel or in weapons. Experts say getting weapons-grade material is the biggest hurdle for any country that desires the bomb.
But diplomats and arms experts said revelations about Khan's nuclear black market showed a means existed for Syria to get hold of equipment it needed to enrich uranium without decades of research that would have been needed to develop it on its own.
On the other hand, one arms expert said even with enrichment devices Syria could not be close to having a nuclear weapon.
"Could Syria have centrifuges? Sure. Is it possible that they could be close to getting a nuclear weapon? No way," Joseph Cirincione, director for Non-Proliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Reuters.
Everyone interviewed for this story said Bolton, who made strong assertions about Iraq's nuclear plans before the war in Iraq, would have trouble convincing people outside the United States that Syria was a threat.
The U.S. military has never found any evidence to support claims that ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had revived his nuclear weapons program.
"Given what was revealed about the quality of intelligence in Iraq, people have become very wary of U.S. intelligence about other countries," said a Western diplomat close to the IAEA.
Bolton has crusaded against many states suspected by the Bush administration of seeking WMD. He has attacked Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Libya and now Syria.
Pakistan could hold the key to resolving the debate about any Syrian nuclear capabilities.
Khan, the man credited with building up Pakistan's successful nuclear weapons program, has been cooperating with Pakistani authorities after admitting that he leaked nuclear secrets to Iran, Libya and North Korea.
Diplomats and non-proliferation experts agreed that if Syria does in fact have centrifuges, they had to come from Khan and the Pakistani authorities would be able to resolve the issue. But Islamabad may refuse to cooperate, as in the case of Iran. (Additional reporting by Inal Ersan in Damascus and Saul Hudson in Washington)
Reuters 2004. All Rights Reserved.