VIENNA – The U.N. nuclear watchdog voted Thursday to report Syria to the U.N. Security Council for violating its safeguard agreements, citing Syria's undeclared construction of a covert nuclear reactor and refusal to supply information.
The move by the International Atomic Energy Agency comes amid political protests in Syria, but Washington and its allies insist the timing of the recommendation has nothing to do with the crackdown on pro-democracy protesters and is separate from an effort by European nations to have the Security Council condemn Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime.
"The resolution is a necessary and appropriate step in light of the troubling findings in the IAEA's latest report, including Syria's refusal of the last three years to cooperate with the investigation," Glyn Davis, the chief U.S. envoy, to the IAEA told reporters after the vote.
Ministers of the IAEA's 35 governing members have been meeting since Monday to discuss a raft of issues ranging from the disaster at Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant to a lack of satisfactory cooperation from member states, including Syria and Iran.
Although the vote on taking action against Syria passed, it proved divisive. Seventeen members voted in favor, while six opposed the measure, based on the findings of IAEA chief Yukiya Amano. However, 11 nations abstained, meaning they did not contribute to the tally. One member was absent from the vote.
In Washington, White House press secretary Jay Carney said the vote marks a "significant action by the international community to uphold the nonproliferation rules of the road." He said Syria for years has "stonewalled and obstructed" the IAEA's efforts and pledged that the U.S. will stand with its partners and allies around the world to ensure that countries meet their responsibilities or be held accountable for their actions.
China and Russia voted against the recommendation, meaning it could face stiff opposition in the U.N. Security Council, where those nations hold veto power.
Before the vote, the Russians called the referral "untimely and not objective." They said the evidence against Syria was hypothetical and based on "possible alleged insufficiencies."
Indeed, the recommendation is the first from the IAEA that was based on an interpretation of evidence gathered against Syria. Amano acknowledged that while the agency did not have "absolute proof," it was solid enough to justify taking action against Damascus.
Amano said that Syria should have declared its Dair Alzour site, which was destroyed by Israeli warplanes in 2007, but was believed to have been capable of producing plutonium for possible use in nuclear weapons. Since 2008, the IAEA has been frustrated in repeated attempts to follow up on further evidence regarding the site.
"Syria's apparent attempt at constructing a secret, undeclared plutonium production reactor ... represents one of the most serious safeguards violations possible," Davis said.
He went on to accuse Syria of "choosing to actively hinder the investigation by denying access, providing incomplete and misleading information, sanitizing multiple locations, and refusing to respond substantively to the agency's requests for further information and access."
In a separate report on Iran, Amano cited fresh information acquired by the agency that indicated a "possible military dimension" to Iran's nuclear program.
Iran's ambassador to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, called the report "not balanced and factual," and went on to insist that Amano was "not doing his job."
Iran announced Wednesday that it would triple its output of enriched uranium at a higher level than is needed for nuclear fuel -- near 20 percent -- by installing more efficient centrifuges.
Davis called that move "brazen" and told the board the agency's admission that it knows ever less about Iran's enrichment activities is "deeply troubling."
Together with China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom, the U.S. called on Tehran to "cooperate fully with the agency" and uphold its agreements.
Iran insists its nuclear program is purely civilian, yet steps such as the enrichment are moving it closer to a weapons capacity.
"We will not suspend any of our nuclear activities, including enrichment," Soltanieh said.
Tehran is already under four rounds of U.N. Security Council sanctions over its refusal to halt enrichment. The IAEA did not recommend any fresh action at this week's meeting.