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IAEA nations urge non-nuclear Mideast in bitter vote

VIENNA (Reuters) - The U.N. nuclear assembly on Saturday passed a resolution urging all Middle East nations to renounce atom bombs in a vote most Arabs boycotted over amendments they felt took pressure off Israel.

The vote was 82-0 with 13 abstentions but disenchantment reigned after days of wrangling between Israel and Western nations on one hand and Arab and Islamic states on the other that polarized a body that normally operates on consensus.

The rare ballot at the weeklong annual assembly of the International Atomic Energy Agency was non-binding but highlighted deep tensions over Israel’s presumed nuclear might and shunning of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

A similar resolution a year ago passed overwhelmingly last year but with 47 abstentions by Western and developing nations.

To get broader approval this year, sponsor Egypt deleted clauses urging all Middle East nations not to make or test nuclear arms or let them be deployed on their soil, and big nuclear arms powers not to foil such steps.

But efforts to achieve consensus were torpedoed by competing Israeli and Arab additions, which included -- respectively -- urging all regional states to comply with obligations to the NPT and all nations to accede to the global treaty.

Entitled “Application of IAEA safeguards in the Middle East,” the resolution also underlined the importance of a -- as yet rocky -- peace process between Israel and Arabs in establishing a nuclear weapons-free zone (NWFZ) in the region.

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But almost all Arab League states stalked out of the Vienna assembly hall before the vote over Israeli-sponsored amendments pushed through by Western states in paragraph-by-paragraph votes earlier, changes the Arabs felt weakened the measure.

“How could we approve a call on us all to obey our international obligations when Israel itself refuses to adhere to any non-proliferation standards. This undermines the IAEA’s credibility,” one Arab diplomat told Reuters.

A senior Western diplomat countered: “The call for compliance with obligations was a (key) change from versions of this resolution in previous years in that it is a clear signal to Iran and Syria.”

Iran and Syria, both NPT members, are under IAEA investigation over suspicions of covert intentions to make atomic bombs. They deny the allegations.

Despite approval of the resolution, diplomats on both sides spoke of being bloodied by bad-faith haggling that had caused an unprecedented poisoning of the atmosphere at an IAEA gathering.

“It has been a circus, the worst conference in the history of the IAEA. I’ve never seen such animosity. But it reflects the unilateral character of the age we are living in, plus the lack of a true peace process,” said a European diplomat.

Approving the resolution were virtually all Western states, a handful of Asian, Latin American and African countries plus Iran and Egypt from the Islamic world. Abstainers included Israel, chief ally the United States, and Syria, a foe of both.

Israel is widely assumed to have the Middle East’s only nuclear arsenal, though it has never confirmed or denied it.

But Israel, echoed by Washington and close allies, says that while a NWFZ is a commendable ideal, it is not feasible as long as some Arab neighbors continue not to recognize the Jewish state, with Islamist Iran openly calling for its elimination.

Arab diplomats point to a chronic imbalance of power in the Middle East caused by unchecked Israeli power and say it breeds instability and spurs others to seek mass-destruction weaponry.

Near the end of the meeting later in the day, a second Middle East resolution revived by Arabs to brand “Israel’s nuclear capabilities” a threat was kept from a floor vote by a Western-backed “no-action” motion carried by a 46-43 margin.

The same measure at last year’s assembly was hastily shelved by the Arabs in the face of a similar blocking maneuver.

Editing by Richard Balmforth