Tensions between Israel, Islamic nations scuttle IAEA plans for talks on nuke-free Mideast

By George Jahn, AP
Wednesday, September 1, 2010

UN agency fails to stage nuke-free Mideast talks

VIENNA — Tensions between Israel and Islamic nations have scuttled plans by the U.N. atomic watchdog agency to convene talks this year on a Mideast free of nuclear weapons, according to a document shared with The Associated Press.

The latest failure to bring the opposing sides to the table casts further doubt on plans to hold more substantive talks in two years on such a zone, as proposed by the U.N.’s 189-nation Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty conference four months ago.

That proposal was billed by the NPT conference as a potential breakthrough and — despite Israeli objections — was backed by the U.S. and other nuclear powers for the first time since Arab nations began pushing for such a gathering 15 years ago.

Since, then, traditional tensions have been exacerbated by a push by Arab nations to force the Jewish state to allow international inspections of its secretive nuclear program.

Islamic nations have long called for Israel — which is widely believed to have nuclear arms — to open its program. Confidential documents made available to the AP in August showed increasing pressure ahead of International Atomic Energy Agency meetings later this month, with Arab nations lobbying even Washington and other Israeli allies to drop their traditional backing of the Jewish state’s nuclear secrecy and vote for a resolution calling on it to allow IAEA inspections.

A report from IAEA chief Yukiya Amano prepared for those meetings and made available Wednesday to the AP reflects the tense situation.

The report, which is being circulated internally to the IAEA’s 35 board member nations, acknowledges the failure to carry out a meeting planned for this year on a Mideast nuclear free zone due to “a long-standing and fundamental difference of views between Israel … and the other States of the Middle East region.”

Responses from Israel and Islamic nations make it clear “that currently there is no convergence of views on convening” such talks, said the report, dated Aug. 31 and entitled “Application of IAEA Safeguards in the Middle East.”

An Israeli letter appended to the report showed it conditioning any consideration of attending such a meeting to a decision by Islamic nations at the upcoming IAEA meetings to ease pressure on the Jewish state — an unlikely development considering the push on Israel to admit to possessing nuclear arms.

The Israeli letter indirectly criticized Iran and Syria, citing “repeated cases of non-compliance by several Middle East States with their international obligations.”

Israel, the U.S. and their allies consider Iran the region’s greatest proliferation threat, fearing that Tehran is trying to achieve the capacity to make nuclear weapons despite its assertion that it is only building a civilian program to generate power.

They also say Syria — which, like Iran, is under IAEA investigation — ran a clandestine nuclear program, at least until Israeli warplanes destroyed what they describe as a nearly finished plutonium-producing reactor two years ago. Syria denies that.

But Islamic nations insist that Israel is the true danger in the Middle East, saying they fear its nuclear weapons capacity. Israel has never said it has such arms, but is widely believed to possess them.

In its letter, Iran — Israel’s most intractable foe — rejects outright the idea of a Mideast nuclear forum, “which we believe would in utter vain.” And it indirectly takes the U.S. and other western nations to task, saying the Jewish state is able to enhance “its illegitimate nuclear capabilities by the illegal contributions of certain States.”

The latest pressure puts the Jewish state in an uncomfortable position. It wants the international community to take stern action to prevent Iran from obtaining atomic weapons but at the same time brushes off calls to come clean about its own nuclear capabilities.

Passions have grown since last September when the IAEA general assembly overrode Western objections to pass a resolution directly criticizing Israel and its atomic program for the first time in 18 years.

The result was a setback not only for Israel but also for the United States and other supporters of the Jewish state.

Because the resolution passed by only a four-vote margin, lobbying by both side has intensified ahead of this month’s IAEA assembly, where the measure will likely be voted on again.

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