VIENNA/UNITED NATIONS Potentially divisive talks planned for next month on banning nuclear weapons in the Middle East may be postponed, diplomats said on Tuesday, a development likely to anger Arab states but please Israel.
No formal decision has yet been announced to delay the mid-December conference on creating a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), but U.N. officials said the talks might now not happen before 2013.
Given the situation in the Middle East, a Vienna-based diplomat said, there seemed to be little prospect for a successful conference this year. "The idea will be that it is postponed, not cancelled," the diplomat said.
Asked what the reaction from Arab states would be if it was not held as planned, an Arab diplomat said: "Negative."
The plan for a meeting to lay the groundwork for the possible creation of a WMD-free Middle East was agreed at a May 2010 conference of 189 parties to the 1970 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
But the United States fears the conference, due to be held in Finland, could be used as a forum to bash Israel.
Iran and Arab states often say Israel's presumed nuclear arsenal poses a threat to Middle East peace and security. Israel and Western powers see Iran as the main nuclear proliferation threat. Tehran denies any atom bomb ambitions.
U.S. and Israeli officials have said a nuclear arms-free zone in the Middle East could not be a reality until there was broad Arab-Israeli peace and Iran curbed its nuclear programme.
Like nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, Israel has never signed the NPT. It neither confirms nor denies having nuclear arms, although non-proliferation and security analysts believe it has several hundred atomic weapons.
Israel has yet to say whether it would attend the proposed meeting and the senior Finnish official organising it, Jaako Laajava, underlined at the weekend the importance of all Middle Eastern countries taking part.
"All the signs are that they are going to end up postponing it," the envoy in Vienna said, referring to Laajava and the three powers which have tried to make the conference happen - the United States, Britain and Russia.
But diplomats stressed that efforts would continue to organise the conference at the earliest possible date. It is a case of "when rather than if," another envoy said.
Even if the talks were to be organised eventually, Western diplomats and others expect little progress any time soon due to the deep-rooted animosities in the region.
Iran used a seminar in Brussels also attended by officials from Israel last week to announce it would go to the proposed meeting and "participate actively."
The Islamic state is in a stand-off with world powers over suspicions it is seeking the means to produce nuclear weapons. Israel has not ruled out military action against Iranian nuclear sites.
(Additional reporting by Ritsuko Ando and Jussi Rosendahl in Helsinki; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)