Israel in Hot Seat at Middle East Nuclear Ban Conference
November 24, 2011
Deutsche Presse-Agentur & Associated Press & The Dawn
The focus of an IAEA meeting on a nuclear weapon-free Middle East was not on Iran -- which was the only country in the region that did not participate -- but on Israel. 'Israeli nuclear capabilities pose a grave and continuous threat to others in the region,' said Syrian Ambassador Bassam Sabbagh. Arab countries represented at the international conference urged Israel to give up its nuclear arms as a precondition for a nuclear weapons ban in the Middle East.
Israel in Hot Seat at Middle East Nuclear Ban Conference
VIENNA (November 22, 2011) -- Arab countries urged Israel to give up its nuclear arms as a precondition for a nuclear weapons ban in the Middle East, participants at an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) conference said Monday. The focus of the meeting on a nuclear weapon-free Middle East was not on Iran -- which decided to boycott the forum, making it the only country of the region that did not participate -- but on Israel, diplomats said. 'Israeli nuclear capabilities pose a grave and continuous threat to others in the region,' said Syrian Ambassador Bassam Sabbagh, according to a participant.
However, representatives from existing nuclear ban zones in Africa and Asia made clear that talks on ridding the Middle East of such weapons could start even while Israel has not disarmed and has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. 'Well, in South Africa there were [nuclear] weapons when we started the process in 1964,' South African envoy Abdul Samad Minty told reporters, referring to the process that led to the African nuclear weapon-free zone.
Contrary to Arab views, Israel has said it wants a peace settlement in the Middle East before considering a nuclear ban. No Israeli diplomat spoke in the conference Monday morning. Israel and 17 Arab countries, as well as Palestine, were represented at the forum. Iran stayed away, because the IAEA issued a report this month containing many indications that the country is developing a nuclear weapon, and because it views such conferences as useless as long as Israel keeps its arsenal.
Tehran's envoy Ali Asghar Soltanieh criticized that IAEA chief Amano was turning a blind eye towards Israel while focusing on Iran. 'He is totally ignoring the concerns of the international community vis-a-vis Israel,' he told DPA.
Syria blasts Israel at IAEA nuke-free zone meeting, but other Arab nations are more moderate
VIENNA (November 21, 2011) -- Syria accused Israel of posing a "grave and serious threat" through its undeclared atomic arsenal Monday, at a meeting between the Jewish state and its Arab neighbors meant to narrow differences on creating a Mideast nuclear weapon-free zone, officials said.
Aside from Iran, which is boycotting the two-day meeting, Syria is Israel's bitterest Mideast rival, and Syrian delegate Bassam al-Sabbagh voiced rhetoric similar to standard Arab criticism of Israel.
But officials reporting on the closed International Atomic Energy Agency gathering said that except for Syria and Lebanon, its lockstep ally, other Arab nations speaking at the meeting were lower-key than usual in chastising the Jewish state for refusing to open its nuclear program to UN perusal.
Israel, for its part, restated its view: no discussions on a nuclear-free zone without peace in the Middle East.
"Experience shows that such a process can only be launched when normal, peaceful relations exist in the region, when the threat perception of all regional members is low, and only after basic confidence is established among states of the region," David Danieli, Israel's deputy nuclear chief, said in comments provided to The Associated Press.
For now, he said, "Political instability, open hostilities, deep mistrust and noncompliance with international obligations are too common in many parts of the Middle East region."
Despite the sharp Syrian remarks, one of the officials who attended the meeting said the atmosphere was "much less confrontational, much less hostile" than at other IAEA gatherings focused on the Middle East that traditionally see Muslim nations speaking with one strongly critical voice about Israel's nuclear capabilities. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting was held in private.
Most Mideast participants at the 97-nation meeting appeared to be heeding an appeal by IAEA chief Yukiya Amano. In opening remarks made available to reporters, Amano urged Mideast nations to focus on "fresh thinking," adding he hoped they would be able to move "beyond simply restating long-established positions."
Officials and participants warned against high expectations at the gathering, which is hearing presentations on already established nuclear-free zones elsewhere as a way of stimulating discussion on the Middle East and is not meant to reach any decisions.
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 in 2012 was an incentive for most of the region's Muslim nations to meet this year with Israel for the exploratory Vienna talks.
Arab countries and Iran are aware of the potential of using the 2012 UN conference as a platform to pressure Israel to fulfill their long-standing demands: joining the nonproliferation treaty, acknowledging that it has nuclear weapons and allowing IAEA inspectors to probe its atomic activities.
Israel is unlikely to do any of that. It remains unclear whether it will even attend the 2012 talks and is at the Vienna meeting only under the stipulation that it remain a nonbinding give-and-take on the issue of nuclear-free zones in general.
The official who attended the meeting said that early discussions Monday touched on a main point of division between Israel and the Arabs -- whether the Jewish state needs to join the Nonproliferation Treaty as a prerequisite to creation of such a zone. That is demanded by the region's Muslim countries but is rejected by Israel.
The official said that presenters for Argentina and South Africa, talking about their own regional zones, suggested that -- based on the experience of their regions -- NPT membership is not needed to begin talks.
Israel is commonly considered to be the only Middle East nation with atomic weapons -- and its secretive nuclear program has long been a heated subject of contention with Arab neighbors.
The Arabs have urged Israel to open up to international inspection. Israel in turn says that Iran is the greatest threat to the region through its refusal to heed UN Security Council resolutions demanding it stop activities that could be used to make nuclear weapons and suspected research and development of such capabilities.
Tehran denies any interest in such arms.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
Iran Snubs 'Useless' UN Mideast Atomic Forum
VIENNA (November 21, 2011) -- Iran angrily stayed away on Monday from a UN atomic agency forum on creating a Middle East free of nuclear weapons that saw Israel under fire from Arab nations for its alleged possession of the bomb.
Iran's ambassador to the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, said Tehran's decision was its "first reaction" to the body's "inappropriate" recent report on its nuclear programme. That assessment saw the IAEA come the closest yet to accusing Iran outright of seeking to develop nuclear weapons. Iran, hit by four rounds of UN sanctions, says its activities are exclusively for peaceful purposes.
On Friday, the IAEA's board of governors passed a resolution of "deep and increasing concern" submitted by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, Germany and 12 others in light of the report.
Soltanieh said another reason for not attending the two-day IAEA forum, aimed at learning from the experiences of other so-called nuclear-weapon-free zones (NWFZ), was Israel's unofficial atomic arsenal.
"As long as the Zionist regime does not belong to the NPT (nuclear non-proliferation treaty) ... this kind of conference is useless and cannot succeed," Soltanieh told Iranian television channel Al-Alam.
Israel is widely believed to possess nuclear weapons but has never confirmed it. Unlike Iran it is not a signatory to the NPT and therefore not subject to IAEA inspections. Syria, reported by the IAEA to the Security Council over a suspected covert reactor allegedly bombed by Israel in 2007, was however present at the forum, along with Israel, 17 other Middle East states and Palestinian representatives.
Some of the roughly 275 participants from 97 countries in the closed-door discussion said representatives of several Arab states, particularly Syria and Lebanon, had used their speeches to attack Israel. "Israeli nuclear capabilities pose a grave and continuous threat to others in the region. Israel must join the NPT," Syria's ambassador Bassam Sabbagh said, according to one participant.
But David Danieli, deputy head of Israel's Atomic Energy Commission, said that a process towards a nuclear-free Middle East "can only be launched when normal peaceful relations exist in the region," according to a participant. Danieli said that vital pre-requisites were still absent, most notably mutual recognition -- very few countries in the region have diplomatic relations with Israel "and an atmosphere conducive to direct negotiation."
Germany's ambassador Ruediger Luedeking agreed: "Recognition is the minimum requirement." Participants said the atmosphere was however less "confrontational" than previous IAEA events that have degenerated into Arab-Israeli slanging matches, most notably the annual conferences of the agency's roughly 150 member states.
NWFZ treaties prohibit the production, acquisition and stationing of nuclear weapons, as well as nuclear testing. Zones of this kind already exist in Latin America and the Caribbean, the South Pacific, Southeast Asia, Africa and Central Asia, encompassing 113 countries.
IAEA member states requested in 2000 that such a Mideast forum take place but agreement on holding such a meeting remained elusive until now. The forum comes ahead of a conference to be hosted by Finland next year on ridding the powder keg region, rocked this year by Arab Spring popular uprisings in several countries, of nuclear weapons.
IAEA head Yukiya Amano, opening the forum, conceded there were "long-standing differences of view" on creating such a zone. "It has taken 11 years to get to this point," Amano said. "I hope it will nurture fresh thinking -- creative thinking." "It's up to Iran to consider if it can make a contribution. Clearly they felt not," South Africa's IAEA ambassador Abdul Samad Minty told reporters. "But this (the forum) is a first step. It's not the end of the process."
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