WASHINGTON Talks planned for next month on banning nuclear weapons in the Middle East will not take place, the United States said on Friday, a development likely to anger Arab states but please Israel.
The State Department announced that the mid-December conference on creating a zone free of weapons of mass destruction, or WMD, would not occur and did not make clear when, or whether, it would take place.
Earlier this month, diplomats told Reuters that the talks were likely to be postponed, rather than cancelled outright.
"As a co-sponsor of the proposed conference ... the United States regrets to announce that the conference cannot be convened because of present conditions in the Middle East and the fact that states in the region have not reached agreement on acceptable conditions for a conference," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement.
Nuland said that "a deep conceptual gap persists in the region" on how to handle regional security and arms control, adding that "outside states cannot impose a process on the region any more than they can dictate an outcome."
The plan for a meeting to lay the groundwork for the possible creation of a WMD-free Middle East was agreed to at a May 2010 conference of 189 parties to the 1970 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT.
The United States, feared the conference, which was to be held in Finland, could be used as a forum to bash Israel, a concern likely to have increased after eight days of fierce Israeli-Palestinian fighting that ended with a ceasefire on Wednesday.
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.
The State Department said it would keep working to try to bring about a meeting, adding such a gathering must take into account the security of all the states in the region and operate on the basis of consensus - effectively guaranteeing Israel, and everyone else, a veto.
"We would not support a conference in which any regional state would be subject to pressure or isolation," Nuland said, in a clear reference to U.S. concerns that other participants might gang up on Israel.
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 program.
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.
Even if the talks eventually occur, Western diplomats and others expect little progress any time soon due to the deep-rooted animosities in the region, notably the Arab-Israeli conflict and Israeli concerns about Iran's nuclear program.
The Islamic state is in a stand-off with world powers that suspect it is seeking the means to produce nuclear arms. Israel has not ruled out military action against Iranian nuclear sites.
(Reporting By Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Peter Cooney)