Assad Says Syria Turned Down Nuclear Weapons Offer in 2001

In interview with Austrian daily, Syrian Pres. says U.S. busy with election so Mideast peace by 2008 unlikely.

Syria received an offer of nuclear weapons six years ago, but is not interested in such arms or in a nuclear reactor, Syrian President Bashar Assad said in an interview published Wednesday in the Austrian newspaper Die Press.

"At the beginning of 2001, someone brought us a letter from a certain Khan. We did not know if the letter was genuine or a forgery by Israel to lure us into a trap. In any case, we rejected [the approach]. We were not interested in having nuclear weapons or a nuclear reactor. We never met Khan."

Abdul Qadeer Khan masterminded Pakistan's nuclear program, and has admitted selling nuclear technology to Iran, Libya, and North Korea. Regarding Syria's response to the September 6 Israeli attack on an unidentified target in its area, Assad said that Syria has a right to response to that attack, but hinted that it would not do so.

"We could have responded to the IAF strike by firing a missile, but it would have given Israel an excuse to start a war, and we did not want that," Assad said. "This was a military facility under construction. Since it was a military facility, I can't give details. But that does not mean that this was a nuclear facility."

Western analyses of satellite imagery of the site indicated it may have concealed a nuclear reactor under construction similar to one of North Korean design. In subsequent images, Syria appeared to have razed the structure.

Assad called for Syrian-Israeli peace talks to resume, as follow-up to the Annapolis Conference, and claimed that negotiations could be completed quickly. He said that Syria and Israel had gone 80 percent of the way toward peace in negotiations over returning the Golan Heights, before the talks collapsed in 2000, and that the remaining 20 percent could be completed within a few weeks, and a Golan withdrawal within six months.

"Now a referee is needed - the United States above all, naturally with support from the European Union and United Nations," he said. "But without the U.S., nothing will work."

Syria sent its deputy foreign minister, Fayssal Mekdad, to Annapolis, where he emphasized the need for Israel to leave the Golan. Assad said in his interview that it is necessary to continue the effort begun at the conference.

"If a plane starts and reduces speed, it will crash," Assad said "Annapolis was a one-day event. It all depends on the efforts afterward. We have to be optimistic, but cautious."

The Syrian track is slated to be discussed at the conference the Russians will host in Moscow in the first part of 2008. Details of that gathering remain vague, but senior Spanish officials told Haaretz last week that including Syria in the peace process guarantees success on the Palestinian track as well.

Syria traditionally maintains that the peace process must advance under American auspices. Assad repeated that stance yesterday, but was skeptical that George Bush's administration would be in a position to sponsor talks during an election year.

He also insinuated that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert cannot advance peace because he is "weaker than any prime minister before him."

Assad rejected the claim made in Israel that Syria supports "radical movements" like Hamas and Hezbollah.

"Whether Hamas is radical or not, they are strong. Therefore one has to talk to Hamas. Without them, there will be neither stability nor peace," he said, adding that the same goes for Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Regarding ties with Iran, Assad said that Syria would support whoever advances its interests and goals. "Iran is a very important country - whether you like it or not," he said, and stability in the Middle East is not possible without it.