Syria's bid for aid in planning a nuclear power plant poses no bomb-making risk and a Western move to block the project threatens to discredit the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the IAEA's director said in remarks released on Tuesday.
Major Western nations want the project shelved because Syria is under International Atomic Energy Agency investigation over U.S. intelligence indicating it tried secretly to build a nuclear reactor designed to make plutonium for atomic bombs, reported dpa.
Their push has met resistance in the IAEA's board of governors from Russia, China and developing states who see no grounds for "politicizing" IAEA nuclear energy development aid without proof a country has violated non-proliferation rules.
An IAEA report last week said a Syrian building demolished in an Israeli air raid last year bore similarities to a nuclear reactor and uranium particles, possibly remnants of pre-enriched nuclear fuel, had been found in the area.
But it stressed the findings were preliminary and more on-site checks, and Syrian documentation to prove its denials of covert nuclear activity, were needed to draw conclusions.
IAEA Director Mohamed ElBaradei said the intervention by Western powers against Syria had no legal basis and there was no way Syria could abuse the plant study for military ends.
Denying nuclear aid due to unproven allegations "is not part of our lexicon, it's not part of our statute," he said in remarks to a closed board meeting on Monday and released by his office on Tuesday.
The disputed $350,000 project is a "technical and economic feasibility and site selection" study for a nuclear power station in Syria. It would run from 2009 to 2011.
"All the equipment that is provided is relevant to the project, and is of an innocuous nature. None of it requires any (nuclear) safeguards," he said referring to IAEA oversight meant to prevent diversions into nuclear bomb-making.
"This project did not parachute out of the sky. We have been working with Syria since 1979 ... on different aspects of the feasibility to introducing nuclear power... Thirty years!"
"You all represent governments of law and not of men. The IAEA technical cooperation program should not be subject to political considerations," ElBaradei said.
He warned if the Syria project were blocked over "political considerations," the IAEA would lose credibility with developing states seeking peaceful nuclear power and it would discourage cooperation by states under investigation.
Tensions between ElBaradei and the United States have simmered since he rejected intelligence used to justify the 2003 Iraq war as unfounded, and was proved correct, and Washington tried in vain to block his re-election as IAEA director in 2005.
"The latest clash between ElBaradei and the Bush administration goes back to his insistence on maintaining the agency's independence, following due process and preventing the IAEA from becoming a kangaroo court," said a senior IAEA official who asked for anonymity due to political sensitivities.
The board must decide the Syria issue by consensus, or a rare open vote, if Washington pushes for one, later this week.
Another IAEA official said the project could be revisited by governors next year if by then the investigation found Syria to be in "non-compliance" with non-proliferation rules, as North Korea and Iran were previously, leading to cut-offs of IAEA aid.