VIENNA (Reuters) -- The International Atomic Energy Agency chief has said the agency's failure to detect nuclear arms work in Saddam Hussein's Iraq in the 1980s showed that his inspectors lacked authority to pre-empt proliferators.
His remark was telling because an IAEA probe of Iran has stalled over Tehran's failure to explain allegations of secret nuclear arms research and its refusal to grant inspectors access to military-affiliated sites and officials they deem relevant.
IAEA Director Muhammad El-Baradei said the crux of the problem was that some countries under investigation, the latest being Syria, had failed to ratify an agency protocol permitting short notice IAEA visits to sites not declared to be nuclear so as to ensure no bomb-related work is going on at secret locations.
"Our legal authority is very limited. With Iraq, we have discovered that unless we have the Additional Protocol in place, we will not really be able to discover undeclared activities," he said on the sidelines of the UN watchdog's annual 145-nation General Conference in Vienna.
"Our experience is that any proliferator will not really go for declared diverted activities [that would quickly reveal them as violators of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT], they will go for completely clandestine undeclared activities," he said.
In the 1970s and '80s, Iraq under then-dictator Saddam Hussein developed a nuclear weapons program hidden from the IAEA because of severe restrictions on inspector access. It came to light only after Iraq's defeat in the 1991 Gulf War and the IAEA spent the next seven years dismantling it.
Diplomats say that the key to resolving current IAEA investigations of Iran and Syria is extra access to sites not declared to be nuclear. But they say both have ruled this out, saying such sites involve their conventional military and so lie outside the IAEA's writ.
Iran and Syria deny having any covert weapons programs or illicitly hiding any nuclear activity from the IAEA. El-Baradei has called on Syria as well for greater transparency and access. Damascus also has not ratified the Additional Protocol.
Opening the IAEA gathering on September 29, ElBaradei said the agency, guardian of the NPT, lacked funding, state-of-the-art equipment, and legal authority to extract full cooperation from countries under nuclear investigation.
He said the failure of some 100 countries, including the United States, to ratify the decade-old protocol was "an abysmal record" that handicapped the IAEA's verification mandate.
The IAEA has also since May been investigating Syria, based on U.S. intelligence alleging that it had almost completed a secret nuclear reactor that might have made bomb-grade plutonium before the site was destroyed in an Israeli air strike.
The United States and Western allies have put Iran and Syria under fire in the IAEA debate, accusing both of stonewalling UN investigators and demanding unfettered cooperation.