The head of the UN’s nuclear watchdog group, Mohamed ElBaradei, has criticized the United States for withholding intelligence that it says showed the construction of a nuclear reactor in Syria that Israel bombed in September. The International Atomic Energy Agency chief was critical of both the US delay in releasing the information and of Israel’s bombing of the site before the IAEA could inspect it. We speak with former UN weapons inspector in Iraq, Scott Ritter. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: The head of the UN’s nuclear watchdog group, Mohamed ElBaradei, has criticized the United States for withholding intelligence that it says showed the construction of a nuclear reactor in Syria that Israel bombed in September. The International Atomic Energy Agency chief was critical of both the US delay in releasing the information and of Israel’s bombing of the site before the IAEA could inspect it. Syrian officials say the site was an unused military facility under construction.
On Thursday, top US intelligence officials presented lawmakers evidence they said proved Syria was building a nuclear reactor with North Korean assistance. Among the evidence they displayed were pictures, said to have been obtained by Israel, allegedly taken inside the facility, showing the reactor core being built. Officials said the US believed the site was nearing operational capability, but they declared “low confidence” the site played a role in a Syrian nuclear weapons program.
This is the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, briefing reporters in Washington.
ADMIRAL MICHAEL MULLEN: That this facility was being built secretly and against international convention and that it was destroyed before it became operational are the key points to remember. It should serve as a reminder to us all of the very real dangers of proliferation and need to rededicate ourselves to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction, particularly into the hands of a state or a group with terrorist connections.
AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, the Syrian ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, dismissed the allegations.
IMAD MOUSTAPHA: Can you believe — can anyone be as gullible as this? An allegedly strategic site in Syria without a single military checkpoint around it, without barbed wire around it, without anti-aircraft missiles around it, without any sort of security surrounding it, thrown in the middle of the desert without electricity, plans to generate electricity for it, with out major supply plans around it? And yet, it is supposed to be a strategic installation? And people don’t even think of it. Yesterday, in the White House presidential statement, it was stated to the letter that that was a secret location. And yet, every commercial satellite service available on earth was able to provide photos and images of this so-called secret Syrian site for the past five, six years. I think something is very absurd and preposterous in the whole story.
AMY GOODMAN: For more, I am joined on the telephone by Scott Ritter. He’s the former UN weapons inspector in Iraq, author of Target Iran: The Truth About the White House’s Plans for Regime Change. Scott Ritter, welcome to Democracy Now!
SCOTT RITTER: Thanks for having me.
AMY GOODMAN: Your evaluation of this whole situation, the information that has been presented to Congress on Friday?
SCOTT RITTER: Well, first of all, we have to be concerned about the evidence. We have interior photographs and exterior shots and nothing that links the two. And so, on the surface, I would say that if you’re bringing this evidence to a court of law — it’s a strange dimension, the rule of law, when we speak of American foreign policy lately — you would have trouble having anybody say yes, this is definitive evidence that links the allegations to this specific site in question.
But let’s just assume for a second that the data is in fact accurate. I have to take exception with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when he says that the alleged activities are against international conventions. Actually, they’re not. If Syria had in fact been constructing the reactor they’ve been accused of, they were in total conformity with international law. The nonproliferation treaty, Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, of which Syria is a signatory, requires that facilities be declared to the IAEA only when nuclear materials are to be introduced to these facilities, that a facility under construction is not a declarable item. And so, it’s absurd to sit there and say that just because Syria and North Korea were pouring concrete that they are somehow breaking the law.
And this notion that the reactor was on the verge of becoming operational, again, is absurd. You know, there would have to be literally thousands of pounds of pure graphite that would have to be introduced to this facility, and there’s no evidence in the destruction. You know, there were a number of reporters who went to the site after it was blown up. If it had been bombed and there was graphite introduced, you would have a signature all over the area of destroyed graphite blocks. There would be graphite lying around, etc. This was not the case.
I don’t know what was going on at this site. If the images are accurate, it appears that Syria was producing a very, very small research reactor. But it is not a reactor usable in a nuclear weapons program. Syria was not violating the law.
And if there were concerns over this reactor, a simple referring of the material, these photographs, to the International Atomic Energy Agency would have produced an insistence on special inspections that would have had the inspectors on the site actually determining what was going on and a peaceful resolution of the problem. This shows that the United States and Israel have a wanton disregard for the rule of law. And this is especially critical when the United States is holding up the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a standard in which we hold Iran and North Korea accountable to.
AMY GOODMAN: Scott Ritter, the Washington Post reporting another senior official said US intelligence had formerly declared only “low confidence” that the site played in a Syrian nuclear program?
SCOTT RITTER: Well, I understand there’s people saying that. You know, we have John Bolton, who recently left the Bush administration, putting his marker on the table, saying that Syria was pursuing nuclear weapons. You have the Office of the Vice President carrying out a whispering campaign. But the bottom line is that it really doesn’t matter what the US government says was going on there or wasn’t going on there; the site was bombed. And the United States government has not condemned this bombing.
We are signatories to the Charter of the United Nations. We are a permanent member of the Security Council. And it is our responsibility to ensure that the sovereignty of member nations is protected. And what occurred in September of last year was that the sovereignty of Syria was violated by Israel in a preemptive, unprovoked attack against a site that was not in any way representative of a threat to Israel or a violation of international law. This is where people should be focused on, not, you know, the to-ing and fro-ing about what was or what wasn’t going on in Syria. What we’re talking about here is the violation of a nation’s sovereignty, an act of war, unprovoked, preemptive, by one nation against another. And the United States is remaining not only silent, but we’re actually siding with the aggressor.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the photo that was released of a Syrian official with a North Korean official that did not actually appear at the Al Kibar site?
SCOTT RITTER: Again, it’s a photo that can’t be linked to any of these activities. It’s a photo that ostensibly shows one Korean with, you know, one Syrian, and it’s not evidence of a crime. It’s not evidence of a nuclear weapons program. It’s not evidence of anything. It’s circumstantial in the extreme. And to be talking about a photograph of this nature in a manner which somehow justifies this preemptive act of aggression is absurd and insulting, to be honest.
AMY GOODMAN: And the timing of the release of this photo and this information?
SCOTT RITTER: I think it’s quite clear the United States is in the middle of some very sensitive negotiations with North Korea to resolve the North Korean nuclear dismantlement. The Bush administration is desperate to be seen as saving face, and they are trying to get the North Koreans to admit to having a secret uranium enrichment program and for working with Syria on an undeclared nuclear program. The North Koreans so far have refused to acknowledge either. And I believe that the Bush administration’s sanctioning of the release of this information at this time is designed to embarrass North Korea to prompt a face-saving move for the Bush administration and maybe even get the North Koreans to admit to something that they continue to say just wasn’t happening.
AMY GOODMAN: Isn’t Syria also saying that there are negotiations going on with Israel right now about giving back the Golan Heights?
SCOTT RITTER: There is this discussion. I don’t believe the Syrians have come right out and said that there’s a deal. There’s some talk in Israel that they have received a diplomatic outreach from Syria about this issue, about trading peace for the Golan Heights. And there has been some speculation that the release of this information is designed to torpedo any talk of a peace settlement between Israel and Syria.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think the US does plan to attack Iran?
SCOTT RITTER: There’s no doubt in my mind that the United States is planning right now, as we speak, a military strike against Iran. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and almost every senior US military official has pretty much acknowledged the same. They speak of the need to punish Iran and deter Iran from continuing to provide material assistance to Iraqi groups, these so-called “special groups” that operate, according to the United States, outside of the umbrella of the Mahdi Army. And they speak of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Command as being a rogue organization within the Iranian government that provides this support. The United States Senate, through the Kyl-Lieberman resolution, has pretty much given a target list blessing to the US military by passing a resolution that labels the Revolutionary Guard Command as a terrorist organization. And the Bush administration, of course, is engaged in a global war on terror backed by two congressional war powers resolutions.
We take a look at the military buildup, we take a look at the rhetoric, we take a look at the diplomatic posturing, and I would say that it’s a virtual guarantee that there will be a limited aerial strike against Iran in the not-so-near future — or not-so-distant future, that focuses on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Command. And if this situation spins further out of control, you would see these aerial strikes expanding to include Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and some significant command and control targets.
AMY GOODMAN: Scott Ritter, I want to thank you for being with us. Scott Ritter is a former UN weapons inspector in Iraq. He has written the book, Target Iran: The Truth About the White House’s Plans for Regime Change.