UN nuclear agency assembly narrowly votes against Arab bloc move to censure Israel

VIENNA (AP) — A 151-nation meeting of the U.N. nuclear agency narrowly defeated an Arab push Friday to censure Israel for shielding its nuclear programs from inspection in a closely watched result that the U.S. said was a positive signal for ongoing Mideast peace talks.

In Jerusalem, the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission expressed hope that the Arab League "will refrain from raising the proposal again next year." But Iran, a fervent supporter of the Arab motion, vowed that it would be reintroduced at next year's annual meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency's general assembly.

"The U.S. and Israeli allies have confronted ... the whole world and this is a dark page in history for their foreign policy," Iranian delegate Ali Asghar Soltanieh told reporters. "They put fuel in the fire."

Of the nations present, 51 voted against a resolution called "Israeli Nuclear Capabilities." Forty six voted for, 23 abstained and the rest were absent.

U.S. chief delegate Glyn Davies said the vote was significant in the context of continuing Israel-Palestinian peace talks and U.S.-backed plans to stage a major conference in two years on a Mideast nuclear free zone.

"It preserves a chance for the movement eventually toward a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction, once peace there is achieved," Davies said. "It sends the right positive signal to the peace process and really allows that process to go ahead."

Before the vote, the U.S. and other allies of Israel had maintained that passage of the resolution would threaten both the talks and the chances of staging a high-level Mideast nuclear meeting — arguments countered by Islamic nations and their supporters, who said the resolution would advance the creation of a nuclear free zone.

Soltanieh said Davies was mistaken if he thought defeat of the resolution would solidify chances of such a meeting.

"In fact, he created obstacles for the goal," he said.

Israel itself warned against what it said were attempts by Islamic nations to deflect attention from Iran and Syria, the two nations under IAEA investigation. Iran and Syria deny allegations that they are or were interested in secretly developing nuclear weapons, but both are rebuffing IAEA attempts to follow up on intelligence suggesting such activities.

"It is Iran and Syria that represent the greatest threat to peace and security to the Middle East and beyond," Israeli delegate Ehud Azoulay told the meeting, accusing the two countries of hiding behind "the verbal barrage that is flooding this room."

The resolution expressed "concern about the Israeli nuclear capabilities," while urging the Jewish state to join the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and to open its nuclear facilities to IAEA inspection. Davies said the vote had "created neither winners or losers."

Despite that view, the close vote reflected the deep division on the Mideast between developed and developing nations. Most industrialized countries and their allies voted against the measure, while developing countries backed the Arab-sponsored resolution.

Soltanieh claimed victory despite the motion's defeat, asserting that the vote and surrounding discussion kept pressure on Israel, which is commonly considered to be the only Mideast nation to posses nuclear weapons.

"This was a big failure of the United States' foreign policies," he said of the results, saying that the combined votes for the resolution and the abstentions showed more then 100 nations directly or indirectly backed the measure to criticize Israel.

Still, the result was disappointing to supporters of the resolution, who had hoped to build on the momentum of last year, when the IAEA assembly overrode Western objections to pass by a four-vote margin a similar resolution directly criticizing Israel and its atomic program for the first time in 18 years.

Arab League head Amr Moussa, in comments outside the U.N. General Assembly in New York, reacted angrily to the outcome.

"Why should Israel be the only one? The answer is of course no, it shouldn't be the only one. In fact, there should be no nuclear power in the Middle East," he said.

"This is a recipe for chaos and for an arms race in the Middle East."

Davies, the U.S. delegate expressed understanding for the Arab frustration.

"I am very aware of the fact that in Arab capitals this is viewed very negatively," said Davies, acknowledging that "tempers are going to have to cool" before discussions on the envisaged 2012 conference on a Mideast free of nuclear arms can be advanced.

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Associated Press writers Ian Deitch in Jerusalem and Slobodan Lekic at the United Nations contributed to this report.