Story Highlights

  • Iran, Arab states say Israel main threat in Middle East
  • U.S., Israel deplore 'divisive' debate as distraction
  • West says focus could hurt UN nuclear pact initiative
Iran's ambassador to the IAEA Ali Asghar Soltanieh speaking in Vienna
Iran's ambassador to the IAEA Ali Asghar Soltanieh speaking at a meeting of the IAEA board of governors in Vienna on June 10, 2010. Photo by AP
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Arab nations backed by Iran urged Israel to join a global anti-nuclear arms pact at a rare and divisive United Nations atomic watchdog debate a day after new sanctions were passed against Tehran.

Israel, presumed to have the Middle East's only nuclear weapons arsenal, condemned the push at the International Atomic Energy Agency meeting on Thursday as being fuelled by countries which question Israel's existence.

Western countries warned that honing in on Israel could jeopardize broader steps aimed at banning weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.

"What the region needs is to come together in a cooperative, consensual way," Washington's envoy Glyn Davies said. "This is not going to happen if the parties of the region engage in name-calling, if they wag fingers at each other."

It was the first time the IAEA's policy-making board tackled the topic since 1991, coinciding with wider scrutiny of Israel after its raid on a Gaza-bound aid convoy and a UN conference which put its nuclear policy in the spotlight.

"Israel continues to defy the international community through its continued refusal to accede to the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT)," Sudan's envoy Mahmoud El-Amin told the 35-nation meeting in Vienna on behalf of Arab states.

"The Israeli nuclear danger is reinforced by [its] aggressive policies towards Arab countries," he said.

By shunning the 40-year-old NPT Israel has not had to reject atomic arms or allow the IAEA to probe all of its nuclear sites. India, Pakistan and North Korea are also outside the NPT.

Signatories of the pact - nearly all of the world's nations - last month called for a conference in 2012 to discuss banning weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. If realized, the zone could ultimately force Israel to join the treaty.

Iran, angered by a fourth round of UN sanctions passed against it on Wednesday over its nuclear program seized on the debate to accuse the West of "double standards" and discrimination.

Iran rejects Western allegations it is seeking to develop nuclear weapons, arguing that its nuclear program has only peaceful aims.

"There is only one potential threat to the security of the region...which is the nuclear weapons capability of Israel," Iranian ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh said.

He said the West's reluctance to discuss Israel while pressuring Iran was "very worrisome" because it protected those outside the NPT and could provoke members to withdraw from it. He said Iran had no intention of doing this as of now.

Iran is seen by Western nations as an NPT renegade and bomb risk for hiding sensitive nuclear activity. They say Israel is not comparable because it is not in the NPT while Iran is. Many developing nations say that this is precisely the problem.

The IAEA debate on "Israeli nuclear capabilities" was on the agenda at the behest of Arab nations who want watchdog chief Yukiya Amano to help implement an IAEA resolution urging Israel to enter the NPT and put its sites under agency oversight.

Amano said he would report on his progress in September.