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IRAN, ISRAEL: Avowed enemies allegedly held secret nuclear talks

October 22, 2009 |  8:15 am


Reports are surfacing about a meeting that allegedly took place between an Israeli atomic expert and a senior Iranian official in Cairo in September to discuss the possibility of making the Middle East a nuclear-free zone. 

The talks, vehemently denied by Iranians but confirmed by Israelis, were reportedly held behind closed doors at the Four Seasons Hotel in Cairo under Australian auspices and would be the first direct negotiations between the two archenemies since the ousting of the shah in Iran in 1979.

Although participants in the meeting had “committed to complete secrecy,” as the Israeli daily Haaretz reported, the talks ended up being leaked by Australian sources to the Australian daily the Age, which broke the story on the purported Cairo meetings in a little-noticed Oct. 16 report.

Israel said today that the meeting had in fact taken place. The spokeswoman for Israel's Atomic Energy Commission, Yael Doron, told AFP news service that the agency’s representative conducted several meetings with an Iranian official "in a regional context" under Australia's tutelage.

Tehran, on the other hand, has denied that it held nuclear talks with the Jewish state. "This lie is a kind of psychological operation designed to affect the constant success of Iran's dynamic diplomacy in the Geneva and Vienna meetings," AFP quoted atomic organization spokesman Ali Shirzadian as saying.

Shirzadian was referring to the talks held in the Swiss and Austrian capitals over the last few weeks between Iran and six world powers on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear enrichment program. 

In their detailed reports, Haaretz and the Age say the Israeli atomic commission's director of policy and arms control, Meirav Zafary-Odiz, and Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran's delegate to the International Atomic Energy Agency met several times in Cairo on Sept. 29 and 30.

Also at the meeting were representatives of other countries, including delegates from the Arab League, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and Saudia Arabia, as well as European and U.S. officials, the reports said. 

The Israel-Iran discussions were part of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation, an expert panel established on the initiative of Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. The commission is currently headed by former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans and former Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi. 

Former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, a member of the organization’s advisory committee, also participated in the Cairo nuclear talks between Israel and Iran, although in a nonofficial role, the Age reported. 

According to Haaretz, the discussions between the Iranian and Israeli representatives took place in the form of three panel sessions on nuclear issues in the region. Themes included chances of declaring the Middle East a nuclear-free zone, preventing further nuclear proliferation in the region, and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. 

In one of the exchanges between the two parties, Soltanieh is said to have directly asked Zafary-Odiz, "Do you or do you not have nuclear weapons?" 

The Israeli atomic expert smiled but did not respond. 

In the discussions, Soltanieh said Iran was not seeking to develop nuclear weapons and did not endanger Israel. He emphasized that Tehran did not hate Jews, although it opposes Zionism. He added that Israel did not understand the “mentality” and “ideology” of the Iranian regime, said the Haaretz report. 

Zafary-Odiz, for her part, explained the Israeli policy of being “willing” to discuss the Middle East as a nuclear-free zone. But she stressed that regional security must be strengthened and that security arrangements must be agreed upon before Israel would start discussing the topic. 

The two high-level delegates are thought to have impressed diplomats from the region who observed the discussion, said the Age. 

The reports of the Cairo meeting coincide with a new draft deal brokered in Vienna that is hoped will help ease tensions over Iran’s nuclear program. 

On Wednesday, the U.N. atomic watchdog handed Iran and six world powers a draft agreement for Iran to ship to Russia and France the majority of its nuclear stockpile to be processed for medical uses. 

The deal was brokered after intensive talks among Iran, Russia, the United States and France, according to the U.N. atomic monitor. It is hoped the deal will alleviate fears that the uranium produced by Iran despite loud protests from the United Nations and international community could be used to build a nuclear bomb. 

 -- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut

Photo: The Four Seasons in Cairo, where Iranian and Israeli officials allegedly had a direct exchange of views last month. Credit: Cris Bouroncle / AFP/Getty Images