The United Nations nuclear chief urged Middle East adversaries on Monday to engage in "fresh thinking" in rare talks on efforts to rid the world of atom bombs, attended by Israel and 17 Arab states but boycotted by Iran.
Yukiya Amano, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, opened a two-day meeting at IAEA headquarters that is seen as an opportunity to help build confidence and reduce deep mistrust in the volatile region,
The veteran Japanese diplomat said he hoped it "will help to promote dialogue on a nuclear weapon-free zone" in the Middle East.
Iran, which Israel and the United States accuse of planning to build nuclear weapons, said it would not take part in the discussions after the IAEA's 35-nation governing board passed a resolution on Friday rebuking it for its atomic activities.
The Islamic state, which denies there is a military purpose to its nuclear work, has accused Amano of pro-Western bias and of failing to address Israel's assumed atomic arsenal.
"The Iranian seat is empty," one Western official said shortly after the closed-door meeting started.
Proliferation expert Mark Fitzpatrick, a director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank, said Iran's absence was unfortunate.
"In refusing to attend, Iran has dealt yet another blow to the vision of a nuclear-weapon free zone, which will require concerted political will by all regional players," he said.
The Nov. 21-22 forum has been billed as a symbolically significant bid to bring regional foes together at the same venue, although no concrete outcome is expected.
If conducted smoothly with relatively toned-down rhetoric on all sides, it could send a positive signal ahead of a planned international conference next year on freeing the Middle East of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.
"It is my earnest hope that your discussion will be creative and constructive, moving beyond simply re-stating long-established positions," Amano said.
FINLAND TO HOST 2012 MEETING
Israel is widely believed to have the Middle East's only nuclear arsenal, frequently condemned by Arab states and Iran.
The talks will focus on the experiences of regions which have set up Nuclear Weapon-Free Zones (NWFZ), including Africa and Latin America, and how the Middle East can learn from them.
"I hope it will nurture fresh thinking - creative thinking - on the possible relevance of the experience of the five existing nuclear weapon-free zones to the Middle East," Amano said.
IAEA member states decided in 2000 to hold the meeting but it has taken this long for the parties involved to agree on the agenda and other issues. All IAEA member states were invited.
"That both Israel and the Arab states summoned the political will to attend the IAEA session, and thus to allow it finally to take place, was a positive development," Fitzpatrick said.
Israel, the only Middle East country outside the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, has never confirmed or denied having nuclear weapons.
It says it would only join the treaty if there is a comprehensive Middle East peace with Arab states and Iran. Israel would have to renounce nuclear weapons if it signed the 1970 agreement.
Finland has agreed to host the 2012 conference to discuss ridding the Middle East of weapons of mass destruction.
The idea for the meeting came from Egypt, which pushed for talks among all states in the Middle East to negotiate a treaty that would establish a nuclear arms-free zone.
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