VIENNA (AP) — Israel accused its archenemy Iran on Thursday of being the biggest threat to the Middle East, as the Jewish state sought to deflect pressure at a U.N. nuclear meeting over its own undeclared possession of nuclear weapons.
In addition to reflecting the tensions between Israel and Iran that could lead to an armed conflict, the sharply worded debate was a reminder of the divide between Muslim nations and the West over which of the two nations' nuclear programs is the biggest threat to Mideast peace.
The United States and its allies accuse Tehran of trying to develop the capacity to make nuclear weapons and say such strivings are the greatest menace to the region.
But Iran — which denies any interest in such weaponry — says Israel's undeclared atomic arsenal is the most serious threat. That view is shared by Arab nations, which may fear any perceived attempt by Iran to develop nuclear arms, but share with Tehran the common Muslim stance of denouncing the Jewish state as the greatest nuclear danger.
Arguing the Muslim point of view, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran's chief IAEA delegate, said Thursday that Israel's nuclear arsenal "continues to threaten ... (the Middle East) region and beyond."
Israel is widely believed to have developed nuclear weapons in the late 1960s, although the Jewish state has never publicly acknowledged them.
Responding for Israel, IAEA chief delegate Ehud Azoulay said: "It is Iran which represents the greatest threat to peace and security in the Middle East and beyond. Iran's drive for nuclear weapons, while it points an accusing finger toward Israel, will not change this sobering reality."
Two agenda items at the 155-nation International Atomic Energy Agency general conference fed the dispute.
One was a resolution urging all Middle East nations to join the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty — an indirect jab at Israel, which is outside the treaty and is generally believed to have nuclear arms. The other — a debate of "Israel's nuclear capabilities" — targeted the Jewish state more openly on the same issue and resulted in the sharpest exchanges.
As in past years, the NTP resolution succeeded by a wide margin, with even Israel abstaining instead of opposing it. Of the nations present, 111 voted for, with none against and eight abstentions. In return, Arab nations agreed to only push for a debate instead of a resolution on "Israel's nuclear capabilities."
U.S. chief delegate Robert Wood criticized what he said was misuse of IAEA meetings "to single out Israel for censure."
Alluding to Iran — and Syria, which like Iran is under IAEA investigation for allegedly hiding nuclear activities — Wood said such actions only "distract the agency's attention from serious (nuclear) issues" in two other Mideast nations.