x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Israel and Arab states to discuss nuclear-free region

Israel is commonly considered to be the only Middle East nation with atomic weapons - and its secretive nuclear programme has long been a subject of contention with its neighbours.

VIENNA // Israel and Arab nations have tentatively accepted an invitation by the UN nuclear agency to discuss a Middle East free of nuclear weapons.

Israel is commonly considered to be the only Middle East nation with atomic weapons - and its secretive nuclear programme has long been a subject of contention with its neighbours.

Letters from Egypt and Israel and passages from a letter from Syria reflect a willingness to meet.

But whether the talks take place may depend on willingness to compromise on preconditions.

Arab countries have urged Israel to open up its secretive nuclear programme to international inspection. Israel in turn says the proposed talks should not be construed as nuclear negotiations.

Members of delegations indicate that the chances of success are possibly the best since 2000.

That was when International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) nations first asked the body to convene such talks.

An official from a delegation accredited to IAEA said the organisation's chief, Yukiya Amano, planned to meet the Arab group on September 5 to try to bridge differences.

Mr Amano attaches high importance to the meeting, despite its relatively modest scope, focusing only on "the potential relevance" to the Middle East of nuclear-free zones elsewhere in the world.

He said the talks would be "a very rare and good occasion in which all parties concerned can discuss their issues".

Israel's presumed nuclear power status and constantly flaring Middle East tensions have made any talks between Israel and Arab countries a rarity since the mid-1990s, when regional peace negotiations broke down.

But a decision last year by the 189 members of the Nuclear Nonproliferation treaty to convene a UN-sponsored conference on establishing a Middle East nuclear-free zone appears to be an incentive for the region's Muslim nations to meet Israel.

Arab countries and Iran may use the 2012 UN conference as a platform to pressure Israel to fulfil their long-standing demands - joining the non-proliferation treaty, acknowledging it has nuclear weapons and allowing IAEA inspectors to investigate their atomic activities.

Israel is unlikely to do any of this. It remains unclear whether it will even attend the 2012 talks.

Shaul Chorev, head of the Israel atomic energy commission, said in a response to Mr Amano that his country viewed any meeting as "solely an informational and discussion event and not a forum for negotiations". The Egyptian ambassador Ehab Fahwzy drew a link between the proposed 2012 conference and the Vienna talks.

In a letter to Mr Amano, he said such talks "acquire added significance" after the decision to hold next year's gathering.

New-found Arab and Iranian willingness to sit at the same table with Israel was reflected in a closed-door meeting in Brussels hosted by the European Union last month.

The two sides exchanged views on non-proliferation and confidence-building.

Even Syria appears ready to compromise, despite stormy relations with Israel exacerbated by Israel's 2007 air strike that destroyed what the IAEA says was a nearly finished secret nuclear reactor capable of producing plutonium.

Its conditions, cited by an official, are vague, stressing only "the need for the parties wishing to establish a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East to implement international obligations and ratify the relevant treaties".

Iran remains a wild card for the talks. Its president has called for the eradication of the "Zionist" state and for full Israeli openness on its nuclear programme.

Israel says peace must be established as a precondition for nuclear discussions.

Officials familiar with the proposed talks said on Tuesday that Iran had still not indicated whether it would attend. An email to Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Tehran's chief representative to the IAEA, was not answered by yesterday.

The official who had seen the Syrian letter said Arab representatives were considering attending the talks even if Iran refuses.

* Associated Press