Russia says to push for Mideast free of mass-destruction weapons
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia wants to revive plans for a conference on ridding the Middle East of weapons of mass destruction now that Syria has pledged to abandon its chemical arms, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in comments published on Monday.
Such a move could put Moscow at odds with Washington which announced the conference would be delayed last year. Analysts said it feared the event would be used to criticize its ally Israel, believed to be the region's only nuclear-armed state.
Russia has been pushing to extend its influence in the Middle East. It initiated a U.N. deal to get Syria to abandon its chemical arms after Washington threatened military strikes to punish Damascus for a sarin gas attack on rebel areas.
"We will seek to have this conference take place," Lavrov said in an interview with the Russian daily Kommersant.
Lavrov said Syria's agreement to destroy its chemical weapons by next June should trigger a broader effort.
"In the current situation, it is particularly important to make the ... non-possession of weapons of mass destruction universal in this explosive region," he said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said Syria's government always viewed its long-undeclared chemical arsenal as a counterweight to the nuclear arms Israel is believed to possess. Israel has never acknowledged having atomic weapons.
A plan for a meeting to lay the groundwork for the possible creation of a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction was agreed in 2010, co-sponsored by Russia, the United States and Britain.
But Washington said the meeting would be delayed just before it was due to start at the end of last year. No new date has been announced.
"Our American partners baulked and sidestepped this," Lavrov said in the interview, published the same day Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was to meet U.S. President Barack Obama.
The United States also rejected a Russian proposal to include a line in a U.N. Security Council resolution saying that Syria's plan to scrap chemical weapons was an important step toward a WMD-free Middle East, Lavrov told Kommersant.
Russia has been Syria's biggest diplomatic ally during the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad that has killed more than 100,000 people.
Speaking to the U.N. General Assembly on Monday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem called for the creation of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction but said it was "unachievable without the accession of Israel".
Arab states such as Egypt and Bahrain have made similar calls in speeches at the General Assembly.
But U.S. and Israeli officials see Iran's nuclear activity as the main proliferation threat in the Middle East.
They have said a nuclear-free zone could not be a reality until there was broad Arab-Israeli peace and Tehran curbed its nuclear program, which they fear is aimed at developing nuclear weapons capability.
Washington remained committed to working toward a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and their delivery systems, the U.S. envoy to the U.N. nuclear agency said earlier this month.