VIENNA (Reuters) - Middle East states showed an "open and constructive" approach in rare talks on banning nuclear arms in the region, the U.N. atomic agency chief said on Tuesday, but absent Iran dismissed the meeting as a waste of time.
Israel and its Arab neighbours took part in the November 21-22 forum hosted by the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), seen as a chance to help start a dialogue on the divisive issue of nuclear weapons in the volatile Middle East.
The fact that the closed-door debate was mostly held in a calm atmosphere and did not descend into a heated verbal confrontation between adversaries was a positive sign, even if both sides largely stuck to old positions, diplomats said.
"That the meeting took place and that there is no blood on the carpet is good news," one Western envoy said.
IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano hailed the "positive spirit" of the discussions, which had been billed as a symbolically significant effort to bring regional foes together at the same venue even if it produced no concrete results.
Norwegian Ambassador Jan Petersen, who chaired the talks with participants from more than 90 countries, said they were conducted in a businesslike atmosphere.
But he and other officials made clear that establishing a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (NWFZ) would not happen any time soon in the region, where Israel is widely believed to hold atomic arms and Iran is accused of seeking to develop them.
"I think this was a small positive step but there is a very very, long way ahead," Petersen told a news conference.
Strong support was voiced at the forum for creating a region free of nuclear arms but there was also wide recognition of the difficulties involved, an official summary said.
Iran, which said it would boycott the forum after IAEA member nations on Friday passed a resolution rebuking it over its nuclear programme, said such meetings were pointless because of Israel's assumed atomic arsenal.
As long as Israel "is in possession of weapons of mass destruction, nuclear weapons, and is not a member of the NPT (nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) and doesn't allow inspection by the IAEA ... and Western countries simply support it, such meetings will be superficial and a waste of time," Iranians Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said in Tehran.
Israel and the United States, the Islamic state's arch foes, see Iran as the region's main nuclear proliferation threat.
Petersen said he regretted the absence of Iran, which was hit by a new wave of Western sanctions this week after an IAEA report on November 8 stoked international suspicions it was trying to develop a nuclear arms capability, a charge Tehran denies.
"I can't see that it is in any way helpful to their cause but it is their decision," Petersen said.
Israel, presumed to be the region's only nuclear power and its only country that is not part of the NPT, has said it would sign the 1970 pact and renounce nuclear weapons only as part of a broader Middle East peace deal with Arab states and Iran that guaranteed its security.
This week's talks focussed on the experiences of regions which have set up zones free of nuclear arms, including Africa and Latin America, and how the Middle East can learn from them.
Participants said the meeting could send a positive signal ahead of a planned international conference hosted by Finland in 2012 to discuss establishing such a zone in the Middle East.
The idea for the conference came from Egypt, which pushed for talks among regional states on a zone free of nuclear arms.
But the content of the statements delivered by Middle East states at the discussions in Vienna underlined the depth of division that must be overcome for it to become reality.
Arab states, especially Syria, took aim at Israel during the discussions over the arsenal it is widely believed to possess but has never officially confirmed.
Israel made clear its view that the region was not yet ready to establish a nuclear-weapon-free zone and cited political instability, hostilities and deep mistrust.
"It is possible to have a constructive dialogue related to the establishment of a NWFZ, despite the complexity of the issue and differences of views among states concerned," Amano, a veteran Japanese diplomat, said in his closing statement.
Additional reporting by Robin Pomeroy in Tehran; Editing by Mark Heinrich