|The IAEA had previously said there were indications nuclear activity may have taken place at the Syrian site
A Syrian site bombed by Israel in 2007 was "very likely" to have been a nuclear reactor, the UN atomic agency has said in a report, a conclusion which may lead to Damascus being referred to the UN Security Council.
The confidential report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) threw independent weight behind US allegations that Syria was secretly building a reactor at the Dair Alzour site in the desert, possibly with military aims.
The report was obtained by the Reuters news agency on Tuesday shortly after its release to IAEA board members.
The West has become increasingly frustrated over what is seen as Syria's stonewalling of an IAEA probe into Dair Alzour, which US intelligence reports said was a nascent North Korean-designed reactor intended to make bomb fuel.
Syria, an ally of Iran, denies harbouring an atom bomb programme and says the IAEA should focus on Israel instead because of its undeclared nuclear arsenal.
"Based on all the information available to the agency and its technical evaluation of that information, the agency assesses that it was very likely that the building destroyed at Dair Alzour site was a nuclear reactor which should have been declared to the agency," the IAEA's report said.
The Vienna-based UN body had previously said there were indications nuclear activity may have taken place at the site.
The US and its European allies are expected to seize on the report's finding to push for a decision by the IAEA's 35-nation board, meeting on June 6 to June 10, to report the Syrian nuclear issue to the UN Security Council.
"The report provides the IAEA's conclusion that Syria was constructing a covert nuclear reactor, and we believe that reactor was designed to produce plutonium for possible use in nuclear weapons," a Western diplomat said.
Another diplomat, also speaking on condition of anonymity, in Vienna said: "I presume that they [the United States and its allies] will press ahead now.
"They got the report they asked for, they got as strong a wording as the agency, I think, can come up with."
Some non-Western envoys have expressed scepticism about any such step by the IAEA board, saying that whatever Syria did at Dair Alzour it was now in the past.
Syria has for nearly three years refused to allow UN inspectors to revisit the site destroyed by Israel, saying Dair Alzour was a military, non-nuclear area.
Western diplomats say Syria's refusal to allow UN inspectors follow-up access to Dair Alzour risks undermining the IAEA and the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that underpins its work to prevent the spread of atom bombs, if nothing is done.
Preparations for a possible US-led move by the IAEA's board coincide with a Syrian crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations, but Western diplomats say the two issues are separate.
The IAEA board has the power to refer countries to the Security Council if they are judged to have violated IAEA rules, designed to make sure atom technology is not diverted for military aims, by carrying out covert nuclear work.
It reported Iran to the Security Council in 2006 over its failure to dispel suspicions that it was trying to develop nuclear weapons.
Tehran has since been hit with four rounds of UN sanctions over its refusal to curb sensitive nuclear work.
In a separate restricted IAEA report, a copy of which was obtained by the AFP news agency on Tuesday, the UN nuclear watchdog said it had received new information on possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear programme.
|Iran says its nuclear programme is entirely for peaceful purposes [AFP]
The agency also said that Iran has continued to increase its stockpile of low-enriched uranium, in defiance of multiple rounds of UN sanctions.
The IAEA has been investigating Tehran's atomic programme for a number of years now, which Iran says is entirely peaceful.
In the nine-page report, circulated to IAEA member states ahead of a board of governors meeting next month, the watchdog said it had "received further information related to such possible undisclosed nuclear-related activities, which is currently being assessed".
Furthermore, there were "indications that certain of these activities may have continued beyond 2004," the report said.
A senior international official familiar with the investigation said the alleged activities in Iran may even have continued "until rather recently", including in 2010.
Yukiya Amano, the IAEA director-general, had written to Fereydoun Abasi, Iran's vice-president and head of its atomic energy body, "reiterating its concerns [and] expressing the importance of Iran clarifying these issues," according to the report.
But Tehran has not yet responded, the official said.
The IAEA calculated that Iran's stockpile of low-enriched uranium in the main branch of its Natanz uranium enrichment plant had now reached 4,105 kgs.
On Tuesday, the US hit seven foreign companies, including Venezuela' state-owned oil company and an Israeli
shipping firm, with sanctions for doing business with Iran that Washington says helps fund its nuclear programme.
At the same time, the administration imposed separate sanctions on more than 15 people and companies in China, Iran, North Korea, Syria and elsewhere for illicit trading in missile technology and weapons of mass destruction.
The State Department announced the penalties as the administration widened the scope of measures against firms that supply or transport refined petroleum products, including gasoline, to Iran.
The announcement came a day after Barack Obama, the US president, signed an executive order giving the departments of treasury and state more leeway in targeting companies involved in Iran's energy sector in order to boost pressure on Tehran to meet international demands and prove its nuclear program is peaceful.
The affected companies include Petroleos de Venezuela, Tanker Pacific of Singapore, Ofer Brothers Group of Israel, Associated Shipbroking of Monaco, Petrochemical Commercial Company International of Jersey and Iran, the Royal Oyster Group of the United Arab Emirates and Speedy Ship of the United Arab Emirates and Iran.
"All of these companies have engaged in activities related to the supply of refined petroleum products to Iran, including the direct supply of gasoline and related products," James Steinberg, deputy secretary of state, in
announcing the sanctions.
US officials say Iran uses revenue from its energy sector to fund its nuclear programme.