* IAEA head sees possible step forward in Syria probe
* Criticises lack of Iranian cooperation
* Tehran and Damascus deny nuclear weapons ambitions
By Fredrik Dahl and Sylvia Westall
VIENNA, March 7 (Reuters) - The head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog said on Monday he saw possible movement in a probe into allegations of covert atomic activities in Syria, but once again criticised Iran for lack of cooperation.
Western powers fear Iran may be seeking to develop nuclear weapons capability, while U.S. intelligence reports have said Dair Alzour, a Syrian desert complex bombed by Israel in 2007, was a nascent North Korean-designed nuclear reactor intended to produce bomb material. Iran and Syria, close allies, deny ever harbouring nuclear weapons ambitions. Iran, a major oil producer, says its atomic work is aimed at generating electricity so that it can export more of its oil and gas.
Yukiya Amano, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said Syria had not cooperated with it since mid-2008 in connection with Dair Alzour and sites that may have been linked to it, refusing to grant follow-up access.
But last month Amano got a response from Syria’s foreign minister to a letter sent in November asking for prompt access.
“I believe that the minister’s response, stating that Syria would continue to work with the Agency to resolve all outstanding technical issues, could represent a step forward,” he told a closed-door meeting of the IAEA’s 35-nation governing board, according to a copy of his speech.
Amano added that the IAEA had since agreed with Syria on an inspection visit to the Homs acid purification facility, where uranium concentrates, or yellowcake, were made as a by-product.
As part of its probe, the IAEA has sought to examine the yellowcake at Homs, which if processed further could be used as nuclear fuel or eventually nuclear bombs. Syria says the plant is for making fertiliser.
Washington says Dair Alzour is the main issue and a visit to Homs will not suffice to address allegations of covert activity.
“Damascus will cooperate just enough to keep the IAEA at bay,” said nuclear expert Mark Hibbs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Turning to Iran, Amano said Tehran needed to fully implement its “binding obligations” to establish international confidence that its nuclear programme was exclusively peaceful.
In a confidential report last month, the IAEA said it had received new information about allegations that Iran may be seeking to develop a nuclear-armed missile. Tehran denies this.
The document signalled growing frustration at what the agency sees as Iran’s lack of cooperation with a long-running investigation into its disputed nuclear programme, which has triggered four rounds of U.N. sanctions.
“Iran is not providing the necessary cooperation to enable the Agency to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran,” Amano said. (Editing by Kevin Liffey)