Saturday, September 22, 2007

Iran and Israel face off over nuclear weapons

Israel's Dimona Nuclear Weapons Facility

VIENNA, September 21, 2007

Iran called for UN inspectors to be dispatched to verify whether Israel has nuclear weapons, in a heated showdown with the Jewish state at a meeting of the UN atomic agency Friday.

The face-off between the two nations came as Arab states condemned Israel for hiding an atomic arsenal, at a general conference of the 144-nation International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna.

Iranian envoy Ali Asghar Soltanieh told the conference that IAEA inspectors should be sent "to Israel to verify who is telling the truth."

Israel neither confirms nor denies it has nuclear weapons, but Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had hinted in a German television interview in December 2006 that Israel did in fact have the bomb.

Soltanieh's comments came after Israeli ambassador Israel Michaeli told the conference that Arab speakers' assertions that Olmert had said Israel had nuclear weapons were "lies".

As for Arab condemnation of Israel for failing to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and accept IAEA safeguard inspections, Michaeli said: "Those who call for the elimination of Israel have no moral standing when they criticise Israeli policies aimed at defending Israel's very existence."

The 50-year-old IAEA's tradition of consensus on decisions has broken down over Middle East issues, with debate now highly politicized.

Arab states had Thursday pushed through a resolution clearly aimed at Israel, calling for a Middle East free of nuclear weapons.

But it had to go to a vote, even though Israel backs a nuclear weapons-free-zone (NWFZ) within the framework of a Middle East peace settlement.

In the end, the resolution was backed by 53 votes, with two against and 47 abstentions.

Some Western and non-aligned diplomats said Iran was agitating behind the scenes for a showdown over Israel to distract from its own civilian nuclear programme, which is suspected of aiming to make nuclear weapons

On Friday, Omani ambassador Salim Mohammed Al-Riyami presented the agenda item "Israeli nuclear capabilities and threat" saying there was concern over the "failure of the universality" of the NPT since Israel refuses to sign it.

"Israel still benefits from total freedom to develop its nuclear capacities," Al-Riyami told the IAEA, which uses safeguard agreements to monitor compliance with the treaty.

Al-Riyami had said in a document submitted along with the agenda item: "The policies of successive Israeli governments have obstructed the peace process in the Middle East and all initiatives to free the region . . . of weapons of mass destruction, and in particular of nuclear weapons, have failed."

The IAEA also debated a resolution on safeguards, with Western nations pushing through language on strengthening IAEA inspections.

But non-aligned nations which back Iran got the wording weakened somewhat, dropping for instance the word "universally" in a call for strengthened safeguards.

The resolution finally passed with 80 votes in favour, zero against and 12 abstentions.

The general conference approves broad policy lines for the IAEA.

But the IAEA's 35-nation board of governors, which meets separately from the general conference, makes decisions for the agency on how policy is implemented.

In the past at the IAEA's general conference, Arab states introduce a resolution on the Israeli nuclear threat but withdraw it in the face of strong Western opposition.

It is then postponed to the following year in return for Israel agreeing to the call for a NWFZ in the Middle East.

This arrangement fell apart for the first time at last year's general conference, when the NWFZ resolution was forced to a vote and adopted by a vote of 89-2.

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