Iran denies holding secret nuclear talks with Israel

Iran denies holding secret nuclear talks with Israel

A representative of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission and a senior Iranian official met last month to discuss the chances of declaring the Middle East a nuclear-free zone, Haaretz has learned. This is the first direct meeting between official representatives of the two states since the fall of the Shah in 1979.

The Iranian Atomic Organization on Thursday denied that officials from Israel and Iran recently took part in the Cairo conference, calling the report "sheer lies."

Haaretz learned that Meirav Zafary-Odiz, director of policy and arms control for the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, and Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran's ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), met several times over September 29 and 30 and, together with representatives of other countries, conversed, presented questions and gave replies.

The meeting was held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Cairo under the auspices of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament. Also attending were representatives of the Arab League, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, along with European and American officials.

The ICNND was set up by Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, and it is chaired by a former foreign minister of Australia, Gareth Evans, and a former foreign minister of Japan, Yoriko Kawaguchi. Former foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami sits on the advisory committee of the organization.

The meetings were held behind closed doors, and all participants committed to complete secrecy, to allow a full and frank discussion. However, the fact of the meeting was leaked by Australian sources to the Australian daily The Age.

The Israel Atomic Energy Commission confirmed that such a meeting did take place but refused to comment.

The exchanges between the Iranian and Israeli representatives took place within three panel sessions, each dealing with one of the issues with which the ICNND is concerned - declaring the Middle East a nuclear-free zone, preventing nuclear proliferation in the region and matters of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. The two did not meet or shake hands outside the sessions. In one of the discussions, Soltanieh directly asked Zafary-Odiz - and eyewitnesses say he spoke in an impassioned voice, "Do you or do you not have nuclear weapons?" Zafary-Odiz smiled, but did not respond.

During the meetings, Zafary-Odiz explained the Israeli policy of being willing, in principle, to discuss the Middle East as a nuclear-free zone. She also detailed Israel's unique strategic situation, saying regional security must be strengthened, security arrangements must be agreed upon and a peace agreement must be sealed before Israel would feel at liberty to discuss this topic.

Zafary-Odiz said Israel lived in a complex geopolitical reality, noting that in three decades, four countries in the region broke their commitment to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty - Iraq, Iran, Libya and Syria. She said Israel takes a responsible approach to the nuclear issue as a whole, and that the far horizon of its vision did include the possibility of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, even if the chances for this were slim.

Soltanieh defended his country's policy, and said Iran was not striving for nuclear armament and did not endanger Israel. He said Israel did not understand the mentality and ideology of the Tehran regime. He said the regime did not oppose or hate Jews, but was merely politically opposed to Zionism. He said Iran's growing arsenal of missiles was for defensive, not offensive, purposes.

Israel and Iran have refrained from all direct and indirect diplomatic contact since 1979.

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