VIENNA (Reuters) - Western states defeated a Russian proposal on Friday to remove Syria's alleged past nuclear activities from the agenda of meetings of the U.N. atomic agency, diplomats said.
But in a vote that highlighted how polarizing the global political debate has become, China supported Russia's initiative while only about half of the nations on the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) board - 17 out of 35 - voted against.
Western diplomats argued that Damascus should be kept under pressure to cooperate with the IAEA's long-stalled inquiry, even though this has hardly advanced in the last three years as the country descended into bloodshed.
U.S. envoy Laura Kennedy told the meeting ahead of the vote that the Russian proposal if adopted "would threaten the credibility" of the IAEA's board of governors.
Russia, a veto-wielding permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, has given Syrian President Bashar al-Assad crucial backing during the civil war, which has killed more than 200,000 people.
Apart from China, Venezuela was the only other country which backed Russia while most other countries abstained. One representative was absent from the vote, a diplomat said.
The Syrian case has been on the agenda of the IAEA board's quarterly meetings over the last six years, and Washington believes it should remain in the "focus of the agency," Kennedy said.
The IAEA has long sought to visit a Syrian desert site where U.S. intelligence reports say a North Korean-designed reactor was being constructed to make plutonium for nuclear bombs, before Israel bombed it in 2007.
Syria has said the eastern site at Deir al-Zor was a conventional military base but the IAEA concluded in 2011 it was "very likely" to have been a reactor that should have been declared to anti-proliferation inspectors.
IAEA inspectors examined Deir al-Zor in mid-2008 but Syrian authorities have barred them access since. In February last year, opposition sources in eastern Syria said rebels had captured the destroyed site near the Euphrates River.
The IAEA has also been requesting information about three other sites that may have been linked to Deir al-Zor.
IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano said on Monday the agency remained "unable to provide any assessment concerning the nature, or operational status" of those locations.
"I urge Syria to cooperate fully with the agency in connection with all unresolved issues," he told the board.
Diplomats said Russia had circulated a proposed decision by the board - whose members also include Britain and France - asking Amano not to include the issue in the agenda of future meetings, without elaborating.
In 2011, Russia and China also voted against a proposal by the same body to report the issue of Syria's alleged covert atomic work to the U.N. Security Council.
Western and Israeli security experts in early 2013 said they suspected that Syria may have tonnes of unenriched uranium in storage. Even if Syria did have such a stockpile of material that can be used to fuel research reactors it would not be usable for nuclear weapons in its present form.
Israel's IAEA envoy, Merav Zafary-Odiz, told the board that the "whereabouts of the nuclear fuel, which was supposed to be introduced to the nuclear reactor that Syria built ... is just one example to the many open questions that remain in relation to the Syrian file."
Israel is widely believed to be the Middle East's only nuclear power.
editing by John Stonestreet