VIENNA, Austria – Islamic anger over Israel's nuclear program and bids by Iran and Syria to gain more influence threaten to turn this week's 145-nation International Atomic Energy Agency meeting into an unprecedented showdown between the West and the developing world.
Opening Monday, the IAEA's general conference has traditionally been an annual chance for the United Nations nuclear monitoring agency's member countries to plan general nuclear policies that range from strengthening nonproliferation to programs of medical and scientific benefit.
Decisions are traditionally made by consensus, a practice that had led all sides to bridge sometimes substantial differences and opt for compromise on most issues for most of the general conference's 52-year history. A vote on any topic is unusual and considered a huge dent in the meeting's credibility.
But Islamic frustration over Israel's refusal to put its nuclear program under international purview and resistance by the Jewish state to Muslim pressure on the issue threatens to force a vote for the third year running.
After losing the vote two consecutive years, Islamic nations are threatening to up the ante this year, warning they will call for a ballot on every item, no matter how uncontroversial, unless they get conference backing on the issues close to their heart.
"In all my years of dealing with the general conference, I have never seen it as divided as this," said one conference veteran Sunday, the eve of the conference. The diplomat demanded anonymity because he wasn't authorized to comment to the media.
As in the past two years, Islamic IAEA members are expected to put forward a resolution urging all Mideast nations to refrain from testing or developing nuclear arms and urging nuclear weapons states "to refrain from any action" hindering a Mideast nuclear-free zone.
Israel, widely considered the only Mideast nuclear weapons state, last year called for a vote on that resolution because of the introduction of a separate Arab-backed resolution deeming Israel a "nuclear threat" and refusal by its sponsors to withdraw it. The resolution was defeated but the fact it was put to the ballot further weakened the consensus principle.
Arab members — backed by Iran — this year have again asked conference organizers to include a similar item. Although it is now labeled "Israeli Nuclear Capabilities" instead of "Nuclear Threat," the Jewish State still objects to being singled out. And diplomats told The Associated Press ahead of the meeting that it will again force a vote on the Mideast nuclear-free zone resolution unless the second item is withdrawn.
Focusing on Israel by name "is substantially unwarranted and flawed," said a letter prepared for review by the conference from Israel Michaeli, the Jewish State's IAEA representative.
Sponsors of the item should instead "address the most pressing proliferation concerns in the Middle East," said the letter in allusion to Iran's defiance of U.N. Security Council sanctions for refusal to stop uranium enrichment and world concerns about allegations that Tehran had past plans to make nuclear weapons.
On Saturday, the U.N. Security Council approved a fourth resolution critical of Tehran's defiance on uranium enrichment, which can create both nuclear fuel and the fissile core of warheads.
But Iran, along with ally Syria, figures even more directly at the Vienna conference because they are among four nations seeking their geographic region's nomination for a seat on the IAEA's decision-making 35-nation board.
Iran's bid is strategic. Tehran is running to counteract a U.S. push to have Afghanistan or outsider Kazakhstan elected over Syria, which is under IAEA investigation for allegedly hiding a secret nuclear program, including a nearly completed plutonium producing reactor destroyed last year by Israel.
Tehran is ready to withdraw from the race if Afghanistan does so, narrowing the field to favored Syria and Kazakhstan, diplomats told the AP. But as of Sunday, Afghanistan, backed by the U.S. and its allies, was not ready to do so.
If the regional group does not agree on a candidate by the time the conference turns to the issue, the meeting will also be asked to vote on which nation should take the board seat.