VIENNA Iran will not attend a rare meeting for Middle East countries next week to discuss efforts to free the world of nuclear weapons, an Iranian official said, signaling worsening ties between the U.N. atomic agency and Iran.
Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran's ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, made the announcement after the 35-nation governing board of the IAEA adopted a resolution on Friday rebuking Tehran over its nuclear program.
Iran denies it is seeking nuclear weapons.
Soltanieh lashed out at IAEA chief Yukiya Amano, who convened the Nov 21-22 talks in Vienna for countries in the Middle East and other agency members, as "not professional" and said he did not believe the meeting would be successful.
Amano issued a report last week which angered Iran by saying the Islamic state appeared to have worked on designing a nuclear weapon and that secret research may continue.
Soltanieh said Amano had "not even talked about Israeli nuclear capabilities," referring to the Jewish state's assumed atomic arsenal.
"How can we positively respond to the invitation of Mr Amano?," he told reporters.
"While we are a strong proponent of a nuclear weapons-free zone we don't think that the meeting ... will be fruitful and successful. Therefore I must say we will not participate."
Israel is widely believed to have the Middle East's only nuclear arsenal, and faces frequent Arab and Iranian condemnation.
Israel and the United States regard Iran as the region's main nuclear threat, accusing Tehran of trying to develop an atomic bomb in secret. Last week's IAEA document added weight to those allegations, but Iran dismissed it as fabricated.
FINLAND TO HOST 2012 MEETING
Israel and Arab states are expected to attend next week's forum at IAEA headquarters, which is seen as a symbolically significant bid to bring regional foes together at the same venue, even though no concrete outcome is expected.
If conducted smoothly with relatively toned-down rhetoric on all sides, it could send a positive signal ahead of a planned international conference next year on banning nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.
But Iran's refusal to take part in the Vienna forum underlined the tough challenges that lie ahead for this vision and the deep divisions and mistrust that would need to be bridged.
The discussions on Monday and Tuesday will focus on the experiences of regions which have set up Nuclear Weapons-Free Zones (NWFZ), including Africa and Latin America.
IAEA member states decided in 2000 to hold the meeting but it has taken this long for the parties involved to agree on the agenda and other issues.
Israel, the only Middle East country outside the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), has never confirmed or denied having nuclear weapons under a policy of ambiguity to deter numerically superior foes.
"As long as Israel is not joining the NPT ... and denounce and destroy all nuclear weapons capabilities, we will not be able to realize this expectation of the international community for a nuclear weapons-free zone," Soltanieh said.
Israel says it would only join the treaty if there is a comprehensive Middle East peace with its longtime Arab and Iranian adversaries. Israel would have to renounce nuclear weaponry if it signed the 1970 agreement.
Last month, the United Nations said Finland agreed to host the potentially divisive international meeting in 2012 to discuss ridding the Middle East of weapons of mass destruction.
The idea for that conference came from Egypt, which pushed for a meeting with all states in the Middle East to negotiate a treaty that would establish a nuclear arms-free zone.
(Editing by Myra MacDonald)