Jerusalem – Israel said on Thursday that its atomic expert met an Iranian official as part of Middle East nuclear talks, in the archfoes’ first direct contact in 30 years, but Tehran denied the encounter.
The Jewish state also said it was worried about a draft deal drawn up by the International Atomic Energy Agency aimed at allaying Western suspicions over Iran’s nuclear programme.
The spokeswoman for Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC) Yael Doron told AFP the commission’s representative had held several meetings with an Iranian official “in a regional context” and under Australia’s auspices.
Doron declined to give details of the meetings, but the Haaretz daily said the officials discussed the chances of declaring the Middle East a nuclear-free zone during the talks in September, the first between the two archfoes to be officially disclosed since the shah of Iran was overthrown in 1979.
Haaretz said Meirav Zafary-Odiz, IAEC director of policy and arms control, and Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s delegate to the IAEA, met several times in Cairo at the end of September.
Also at the meeting were representatives of the Arab League, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and Saudia Arabia, as well as European and US officials, the daily said.
It said the meeting was held under the auspices of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation set up at the initiative of Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.
Iran’s state television website dismissed the reports.
“This lie is a kind of psychological operation designed to affect the constant success of Iran’s dynamic diplomacy in the Geneva and Vienna meetings,” atomic organisation spokesman Ali Shirzadian was quoted as saying.
He was referring to talks Iran held in the two cities in recent weeks on its uranium enrichment programme.
Israel, the sole if undeclared nuclear-armed state in the Middle East, has never ruled out a resort to military action to stop Iran’s nuclear drive which the West suspects is aimed at making nuclear weapons but Tehran insists is only for peaceful ends.
At one of the Cairo meetings, Soltanieh asked Zafary-Odiz: “Do you or do you not have nuclear weapons,” Haaretz said, citing unnamed participants in the meeting. The Israeli smiled but did not respond, the daily said.
Soltanieh said Iran was not seeking nuclear weapons and did not endanger Israel. He insisted Tehran did not hate Jews, though it opposes Zionism, the daily said.
Israel considers Iran its greatest strategic threat after repeated statements by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that the Holocaust was a “myth” and that Israel was doomed to be “wiped off the map.”
The announcement of the Cairo meeting came after the IAEA handed Iran and world powers a draft deal brokered after crunch talks in Vienna between Iran, Russia, the United States and France, according to the UN nuclear watchdog.
Diplomats said the document included demands that Iran ship out most of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium for further processing by another country.
The United States, Russia and France had insisted on the point, because it would allay fears that the uranium — which Iran’s hardline rulers have produced in defiance of the UN Security Council — could be used to build an atomic bomb.
But Israeli officials remained sceptical.
“The Iranians are more sophisticated than we are accustomed to think,” the Yediot Aharonot daily quoted Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilnai as saying. “We must make sure that this is not a manoeuvre to gain time.
“I am not underestimating the agreement, but we need to concentrate the pressure and keep it up at full intensity. Our goal is to neutralise Iran’s ability to obtain nuclear weapons,” he added.
And Interior Minister Eli Yishai told public radio that “Israel is worried about the outcome of such an agreement. We hope that world leaders will not stick their heads in the sand and ignore the risks.”