Iran and Israel have clashed at the annual meeting of the UN atomic agency, further throwing into doubt a hoped-for 2012 conference on creating a Middle East free of nuclear weapons.
In lively debates at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) gathering of its 155 member states, Iran said on Thursday that Israel should accede to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty aimed at stopping the spread of nuclear weapons.
"At present the Israeli regime is the only non-party to the NPT [Non-Proliferation Treaty] in this region despite repeated calls by the international community," Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran's envoy to the IAEA, said.
"Peace and stability cannot be achieved in the Middle East while the massive nuclear arsenal of that regime continues to threaten the region and beyond," he said.
Ehud Azoulay, the Israeli envoy, in turn pointed the finger at Iran and Syria, saying "the most significant threats to the nuclear non-proliferation regime are those ... that pursue weapons under the guise of their NPT membership".
"It is Iran which represents the greatest threat to peace and security in the Middle East and beyond," he said. "No words in this room could distort the real facts behind Iran's drive to nuclear weapons."
Neither Iran nor Israel has said whether they plan to attend a conference being organised by Finland on creating a Middle East free of atomic weapons that is meant to be held before the end of the year.
But Shaul Horev, the head of Israel's Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC), said at the IAEA on Wednesday that the "current volatile and hostile" situation in the region was not "conducive" to the creation of such a zone.
"Such a process can only be launched when peaceful relations exist for a reasonable period of time in the region," Horev said, according to a transcript of his speech.
Soltanieh, Iran's envoy, said on Thursday that the "irresponsible behaviour of this (Israeli) regime ... has put the establishment of such a zone in the region for the near future in serious doubt," calling Israel the "only obstacle".
At the IAEA meeting, member states approved with a crushing majority on Thursday a call for all Mideast countries to accede to the NPT, in a move that was slammed by the US envoy, Robert Wood.
"Israel recognises the importance of the non-proliferation regime ... yet proven experience in the Middle East has shown that the NPT does not provide a remedy to the security challenges of the region," David Danieli, the deputy head of Israel's Atomic Energy Commission, said on Thursday.
The US and other Western states abstained from the vote on the general call, however.
Arab states said on Thursday they had decided as a "goodwill gesture" to refrain from specifically targeting Israel with a resolution over its assumed nuclear arsenal.
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Arab envoys said the move was in support of wider efforts to rid the region of nuclear weapons.
But it drew no public praise from Israel or the US, which criticised the placing of the issue - even if not worded with direct reference to Israel - on the agenda in the first place.
Addressing the debate on "Israeli nuclear capabilities" called by the Arab countries, US envoy Wood said Washington was firmly committed to the goal of a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction.
However, "using meetings of the IAEA to single out Israel for censure will not take us one step closer to that goal. In
fact, it is a step in the opposite direction," Wood told the meeting.
"Repeatedly invoking this issue only serves to reduce trust and confidence among states in the region and to distract the agency's attention from serious issues of ongoing non-compliance by two other states in the region," Wood said.
That was a reference to Iran and Syria, which are under investigation by the IAEA over their disputed atomic activities.
Meanwhile, the US, Britain and France warned Iran at the UN Security Council on Thursday that time is running out for a negotiated settlement to the showdown on its nuclear programme.
"Time is wasting," US ambassador Susan Rice told a meeting on nuclear sanctions against Iran. Iran is "at a crossroads", warned Britain's UN envoy Mark Lyall Grant.