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UK, U.N. hope Mideast nuclear talks take place next year

Alistair Burt, British Minister for the Middle East and South Asia, speaks during a news conference in Algiers June 24, 2012. REUTERS/Louafi
Alistair Burt, British Minister for the Middle East and South Asia, speaks during a news conference in Algiers June 24, 2012. REUTERS/Louafi

By Mohammed Abbas

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain and the United Nations said on Saturday they hoped a conference aimed at trying to ban nuclear weapons in the Middle East could take place soon after the United States said it would not happen next month as originally planned.

If and when it happens, the conference is likely to be fraught as Iran and Arab states say Israel's presumed nuclear arsenal is the main threat to security in the region, while Israel and the West see Tehran as the main proliferation danger.

Western diplomats and others believe the conference would make little headway because of that fundamental difference in opinion - something the United States has described as "a deep conceptual gap".

However, Britain and the conference's other organizers, which include Russia and the United Nations as well as prospective host Finland, believe it is worth a try anyway and anti-nuclear campaigners would also like to see it take place.

"We support the convening of a conference as soon as possible. We endorse fully the work of the Conference Facilitator, Finnish Under-Secretary of State Jaakko Laajava, to build consensus on the next steps," British Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt said in a statement.

"We welcome his commitment to conduct further multilateral consultations with the countries of the region to agree arrangements for a conference in 2013," Burt said.

Laajava said on Saturday he would propose that multilateral consultations "be held as soon as possible".

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon echoed Burt's comments, including the hope that the conference could be held next year at "the earliest opportunity".

"I reaffirm my firm resolve and commitment together with the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States, in consultation with the states of the region, to convene a conference," he said in a statement.

The plan for a meeting to prepare the ground for the possible creation of a weapons of mass destruction-free Middle East was agreed to at a May 2010 conference of 189 parties to the 1970 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT.

Like nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, Israel has never signed the NPT. It neither confirms nor denies having nuclear arms, although non-proliferation and security analysts believe it has several hundred nuclear weapons.

The U.S. State Department said on Friday that the conference could "not be convened because of present conditions in the Middle East and the fact that states in the region have not reached agreement on acceptable conditions for a conference".

It did not spell out when or if the event would take place.

Washington had feared that Iran and Arab states might hijack the forum to criticize Israel for other things such as its recent air strikes on Hamas-controlled Gaza in retaliation for rocket attacks on southern Israel.

Iran, Israel's arch foe, announced earlier this month it would attend the conference, but some Western diplomats say Tehran may have only agreed to attend once it became clear that the meeting was likely to be postponed anyway.

It denies Western allegations it is seeking to develop nuclear weapons.

(Additional reporting by Fredrik Dahl in Vienna, Michelle Nichols at the United Nations and Jussi Rosendahl in Helsinki; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

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