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Mideast nuclear conference in jeopardy

Hopes dimmed Tuesday for staging major nuclear talks later this year between Israel and its Muslim rivals, as Iran and Arab countries at a 189-nation conference accused Israel of being the greatest threat to peace in the region and Egypt warned that Arab states might rethink their opposition to atomic arms.

Because Israel has not signed the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, it was not present at Tuesday's gathering of treaty members. But the United States defended its ally, warning that singling out Israel for criticism diminished chances of a planned meeting between it and its Muslim neighbors to explore the prospect of a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction.

The Mideast conference planned for later this year was a key plank of a monthlong 2010 high-level gathering of treaty signatories that convenes every five years to review the objectives of the 42-year-old treaty. Muslim nations have warned that failure to stage the Mideast meeting would call into question the overall achievements of the 2010 conference.

Egypt, speaking for nonaligned NPT signatory nations — the camp of developing countries — said Israel's nuclear capabilities constitute "a threat to international peace and security."

Later, in his separate capacity as Egypt's delegate, senior Foreign Ministry official Ahmed Fathalla warned that Arab nations might "revise their policies" regarding their opposition to having nuclear weapons if the planned Mideast conference failed to materialize.

Fathalla said he was citing a declaration from the March 29 Arab summit in Baghdad. But a senior U.S. official, who demanded anonymity because he was not authorized to comment to reporters, said it was the first time he had heard that threat.

The senior official also said he was not surprised by the verbal attacks on Israel, noting that outreach by Washington to individual Arab countries for moderation so as to not jeopardize the Mideast conference had been unsuccesful.

Israel is unlikely to attend any hostile Mideast meeting and its absence would strip the gathering of significance, leaving it as little more than a forum for Arab states to further criticize the Jewish state and its undeclared nuclear arsenal.

Israel has remained opaque on its nuclear capabilities but is commonly considered to posess atomic arms — a status that Muslim nations say make it the greatest threat to Mideast stability.

Western allies of Israel disagree, accusing Iran of violating the nonproliferation treaty by noncompliance with U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding it curb uranium enrichment and other activities with nonmilitary applications that could also be used in the manufacture of nuclear weapons. As such, they say, Iran most menaces Mideast stability.

Reacting to a harsh series of attacks on Israel, U.S. State Department envoy Thomas M. Countryman urged Muslim nations to ease their pressure at the Vienna meeting, convened to prepare for the next NPT summit in 2015, telling delegates: "continued efforts to single out Israel ... will make a (Mideast) conference less likely."

He also voiced "deep concern over Iran's persistent failure to comply with its nonproliferation obligations, including ... U.N. Security Council resolutions," and urged Tehran to reduce concerns about is nuclear program by coming to May 23 talks with six world powers in Baghdad "with the same serious and constructive attitude that the six partners bring."

Countryman also criticized Syria — found by the International Atomic Energy Agency to be "very likely" hiding a covert nuclear program — and urged it and Tehran to "return to full compliance" with their treaty obligations.

Iran insists that it has no intention of harnessing its expanding nuclear program into weapons making, a stance repeated Tuesday by Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Mahdi Akhondzadeh. He condemned the "hyprocitic and double standard approach of the United States and the EU member states for keeping "deadly silent on the Israel nuclear program (while) they express baseless concern about Iran's nuclear program."