VIENNA (Reuters) - Arab states backed by Iran are poised to target Israel over its assumed atomic arsenal at U.N. nuclear watchdog meetings this month, despite U.S. warnings this may hamper broader steps to ban such weapons in the Middle East.
Growing Western suspicions about Iranian and Syrian nuclear activities are also likely to prompt heated debate during two weeks of board and assembly meetings of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) starting on September 13 in Vienna.
IAEA reports prepared before the sessions said Iran was thrusting ahead with its disputed nuclear programme in defiance of tougher sanctions on the major oil producer, and that Syrian stonewalling was undermining a probe into a bombed desert site.
Expressing frustration at Iran’s failure to address concerns about possible efforts to develop an atomic weapon, which Tehran denies, the U.N. body accused the Islamic Republic of making its work more difficult by barring some nuclear inspectors.
“It would appear that the latest rounds of sanctions have made Iran more defiant and less willing to cooperate with the IAEA,” the IHS Global Insight consultancy said in an analysis, referring to a new wave of U.N., U.S. and European measures since June.
But Arab countries want to focus attention firmly on Israel, seeking to build on a diplomatic victory last year when they secured narrow backing for an IAEA resolution calling on the Jewish state to join a global anti-nuclear arms treaty.
They will propose a similar text this year, diplomats say.
The United States says 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.
“There is a big American push to convince countries to switch votes,” said one senior Western diplomat. “I think they will come close.” The Vienna envoy of a developing country backing the resolution predicted a “very tight margin.”
Israel has never confirmed or denied having atom bombs under a policy of ambiguity to deter numerically superior foes.
It condemned last year’s resolution urging it to accede to the 40-year-old nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as fuelled by adversaries that question its right to exist.
Israel, which would have to forswear atomic arms and place all its nuclear facilities under the IAEA’s watch if it signed the NPT, has conditioned its joining on full Middle East peace.
The United States alarmed Israel in May by backing Egypt’s initiative for a 2012 conference, but the Obama administration has since pledged to keep the Jewish state from being singled out.
Earlier this month, a report by IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano on how to implement last year’s Arab-sponsored resolution highlighted deep divisions on the issue.
Amano “invited” Israel last month to consider joining the NPT. But Israel dismissed the idea as a politically-motivated Arab campaign and an attempt to divert attention from the region’s “real proliferation challenges” of Iran and Syria.
In statements attached to Amano’s document, the United States branded the resolution “divisive” and said Israel had not violated any IAEA agreements, while Iran said “Israel’s nuclear weapons activities” threatened international peace.
The West sees Iran as the main proliferation risk. But there is also increased concern about Syria’s refusal to allow IAEA access to a desert location bombed to ruin by Israel in 2007.
U.S. intelligence reports have said the Dair Alzour site was a nascent, North Korean-designed nuclear reactor to produce bomb fuel. Like Iran, Syria denies having an atom bomb programme.
The U.S. envoy to the IAEA said last month that the agency should consider pressing for a mandatory “special inspection” in Syria to resolve the allegations of covert atomic activity.
A Washington-based think-tank, the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), said such a move was necessary to gain a better understanding of Syria’s activities.
The U.N. watchdog last resorted to special inspection powers in 1993 in North Korea, which in the end still denied the IAEA access and later developed nuclear bomb capacity in secret.
“The sooner a special inspection takes place, the fewer opportunities Syria will have to cover up evidence about the project,” ISIS said in a report published this week.
Editing by Mark Heinrich