* Israel widely believed to have nuclear arms
* West sees Iran as region’s main proliferation threat
By Fredrik Dahl
VIENNA, Aug 18 (Reuters) - Arab states are expected to target Israel over its assumed atomic arsenal at a U.N. nuclear agency meeting next month, despite Western concerns this may undermine broader steps to ban such weapons in the Middle East.
It is unclear whether the International Atomic Energy Agency’s annual member state gathering would back the move after it last year narrowly rejected an Arab resolution calling on Israel to join a global anti-nuclear weapons treaty.
As in the run-up to the IAEA’s General Conference in 2010, the United States and other Western countries are trying to persuade Arab members of the Vienna-based agency not to put forward a similar text singling out the Jewish state.
“I think they (Arab governments) regard it as a matter of principle even if it is defeated. I would be surprised if it won this year,” one European diplomat said.
Last year, U.S. officials warned that zeroing in on Israel, widely believed to be the region’s only nuclear power, could jeopardise an Egyptian-proposed conference in 2012 to discuss creating a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction.
It may also cast a shadow over plans by IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano to invite both Israel and Arab states to a forum later this year to debate the experience of other regions where nuclear-weapons-free zones have been established.
Vienna-based diplomats said they believed Israel may attend those discussions, expected to be held in November in Vienna and seen as a way to help build confidence.
But any resolution aimed against the country at the Sept. 19-23 conference of the IAEA’s 151 member states could harm prospects for the forum, they said.
Israel has never confirmed or denied having atom bombs under a policy of ambiguity to deter numerically superior foes. It is the only country in the region outside the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Arab states backed by Iran say this poses a threat to peace and stability. They want Israel to subject all its atomic facilities to IAEA monitoring.
Israel says it would only join the pact if there is a comprehensive Middle East peace. If it signed the NPT, Israel would have to renounce nuclear weaponry.
The United States and Israel regard Iran as the Middle East’s main proliferation threat. Tehran says its nuclear programme is for power generation purposes only.
In 2009, IAEA member states approved in a close vote an Arab-proposed resolution expressing concern at “Israel’s Nuclear Capabilities”.
Brought up again last year, the symbolically important, although non-binding, resolution was defeated at the conference after a bruising diplomatic battle. But Arab states have already served notice they will try again this year.
“It is the same thing as last year ... they will table a resolution, the question is whether they will bring it to a vote,” one senior Western diplomat said.
In a request for the issue to be included in the agenda, the 17-nation Arab group said the IAEA’s General Conference “must take appropriate measures to ensure that Israel places all its nuclear installations under Agency safeguards and accedes to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.”
(Editing by Maria Golovnina)