JERUSALEM – Israel and Iran took part in an international conference on nuclear disarmament last month in Egypt — a gathering that is now prompting media reports the two foes held direct discussions that included an awkward exchange on whether the Jewish state has atomic weapons.
An Israeli official confirmed Thursday the two sides attended the conference but denied they talked face-to-face. Iran also denied any direct meetings, which would be unheard of between the arch enemies.
However, Australia's The Age newspaper quoted participants as saying that the rivals had a "very robust exchange" during the two-day event in the Egyptian capital. Israel's Haaretz daily also reported Thursday the two sides met.
The meeting was held by the International Commission on Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament, set up by the governments of Australia and Japan to probe ideas on how to cut the world's nuclear arms stockpile ahead of a U.N. conference on the subject next year.
According to Haaretz, Israeli delegate Meirav Zafary-Odiz, chief for policy and arms control for the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, said at the Cairo gathering that Israel would only be prepared to discuss a Mideast nuclear freeze at some future date when the region is at peace.
Iran's representative, Ali Ashgar Soltanieh, meanwhile, asked Zafary-Odiz point-blank if Israel has nuclear weapons, the paper said. It quoted eyewitnesses as saying she smiled but did not respond.
Israel is widely believed to possess nuclear arms, though it refuses to confirm or deny it. Iran denies international allegations it's secretly trying to develop nuclear weapons.
Israel Atomic Energy Commission spokeswoman Yael Doron said on Thursday that both countries stated their positions on disarmament separately during the gathering in Egypt.
"The two sides did not meet or speak to one another directly," she said.
The Web site of Iranian state TV quoted the spokesman of its atomic energy organization as calling reports of talks a "sheer and baseless lie."
The reports, Ali Shirzadian said, are "a psychological war meant to affect Iran's successful diplomacy" in international nuclear talks.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said that Israeli and Iranian diplomats often attend international meetings, though it is rare for them to have any interaction, even indirect.
"We attend a big number of international meetings and conferences. At most of them, there are Iranian representatives," he said.
Israel-based Iran analyst Meir Javedanfar said that Iran's Science Minister Mohammad Mehdi Zahedi met with the then Israeli science minister Raleb Majadele last year in Jordan.
Also, Israel and Iran are both members of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Delegates from Saudi Arabia, Russia, China, India, the United States, France and Britain were among the 24 participants at the Cairo conference.
Iran is currently considering an internationally backed plan to ship its uranium to Russia for enrichment in a move seen as possible first toward blocking Iran's ability to obtain a nuclear weapon.