BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Iran said on Tuesday it would go to a proposed international conference in December on creating a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, but there was little hope of progress even if the meeting goes ahead given deep-rooted regional animosities.
Tehran has been embroiled in a long stand-off with world powers over allegations, which it denies, that it is seeking to develop the means to produce nuclear weapons.
No date has yet been set for the meeting in the Finnish capital later this year to discuss banning atomic arms and other weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the volatile Middle East and there are doubts over whether it will take place.
Even if it does go ahead - Israel, believed to have the Middle East’s only nuclear arsenal, has yet to say whether it will attend - Western diplomats expect little progress soon.
Iran used a seminar in Brussels attended also by officials from Israel- its arch-enemy - to announce it would be at the Helsinki meeting.
“The Islamic Republic of Iran now finally has decided to participate at the conference...on a Middle East (nuclear) free zone,” Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s ambassador to the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), told reporters.
Soltanieh said Iran was “determined to participate actively” in the Helsinki conference, which he said could pave the way for a world free of nuclear weapons.
Iran and Arab states often say Israel’s presumed nuclear arsenal poses a threat to Middle East peace and security.
The Jewish state and Western powers see Iran as the region’s main nuclear proliferation threat.
“We are of the strong belief that all countries should be mobilizing themselves to make sure that this noble goal of a Middle East free from all the weapons of mass destruction will be realized,” Soltanieh said.
The invitation-only seminar organized by think-tanks that Soltanieh attended in Brussels was aimed at promoting efforts to hold the Helsinki meeting.
Yigal Palmor, a spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry, said Jeremy Issacharoff, deputy director-general for strategic affairs in the ministry, was also at the seminar but that there were no contacts between the Israeli and Iranian delegates.
“This was a professional seminar, which naturally involved delegations from various countries including Israel. Our delegation was made up of counter-proliferation specialists, but no one of a senior statecraft capacity,” he said.
Iran has held years of on-off negotiations with Western powers over its nuclear program, which Tehran says is for peaceful purposes but which the West suspects is aimed at developing a nuclear weapons option.
Israel, the only regional state not to belong to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, has said it would sign the NPT and renounce atomic arms only as part of a broader peace deal with Arab states and Iran that guaranteed its security.
Israel has never confirmed or denied having nuclear weapons under a policy of ambiguity aimed at deterrence and, like the United States, has not ruled out military action to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Soltanieh made clear his country would raise the issue of Israel’s nuclear capabilities in Helsinki. “We cannot tolerate the situation...that Israel is outside of the NPT, has a nuclear weapon capability,” he said.
Ali Vaez, Iran expert at the International Crisis Group think-tank, said two goals lay behind Iran’s decision to take part in the Helsinki conference.
“Iran is aiming to hit two birds with one stone: reject the notion that it is a nuclear outlier, and paint Israel as the only nuclear outcast in the region,” he said.
Daryl Kimball, of the Washington-based Arms Control Association, a research and advocacy group, said a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction was a daunting and distant goal but the time to begin work towards it was now.
Israeli leaders could use the Helsinki meeting to “highlight the need for a balanced approach and action on overdue steps that verifiably curtail the WMD potential of its neighbors, including the threats posed by Syria’s chemical arsenal, Iran’s uranium-enrichment program, and more,” he said.
Additional reporting by Fredrik Dahl in Vienna, Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Editing by Fredrik Dahl and Mark Heinrich