Middle East to talk weaponry ban at forum

A historic conference bringing Iran and Israel together with Arab states to discuss a ban on nuclear, chemical and biological weapons in the Middle East is scheduled to take place in Helsinki in December, it has emerged.

A historic conference bringing Iran and Israel together with Arab states to discuss a ban on nuclear, chemical and biological weapons in the Middle East is scheduled to take place in Helsinki in December, it has emerged.

The Finnish organisers of the United Nations-backed bid to establish a zone free of weapons of mass destruction are said to be cautiously optimistic that the conference will go ahead despite high tensions in the Gulf.

The Finnish team has held about 70 meetings with officials in the region and made repeated trips to Israel and Iran since the veteran diplomat Jaakko Laajava was appointed "facilitator" of the consensus in October. So far, none of the countries invited to Helsinki have turned the invitation down.

Details of the plans were discussed this week at a meeting in Qatar on non-proliferation in the Gulf organised by the British American Security Information Council (Basic). As well as the states in the region, the Helsinki conference could be attended by the five nuclear weapons states recognised under the 1968 nuclear non-proliferation treaty - the US, UK, Russia, France and China - and by relevant UN organisations such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Israel is generally believed to have an arsenal of 100-250 nuclear warheads, but has a policy of neither confirming nor denying its existence.

Few of those involved in organising the Helsinki conference expect Israel to give up its weapons in the near future, or even change its doctrine of deliberate ambiguity.

However, Paul Ingram, the executive director of Basic, said: "When you start a process like this, with clear objectives, it is amazing how it evolves. The process itself builds confidence and improves the atmosphere.

"Also, ordinary Israelis now recognise that a zone free of nuclear weapons is preferable to a region with two or more weapons states."

It is hoped that the Helsinki conference will address regional perceptions of double standards underlying Israel's nuclear weapons monopoly set against the constant western pressure on Iran to give up uranium enrichment.

Speaking at the Qatar meeting, Hans Blix, a former IAEA director general, said he thought Iran could be coaxed into attending.

"Iran invested much money and prestige in its enrichment program and while other countries in the world have closed valuable nuclear installations, Iran has seemed totally opposed to abandoning enrichment and other sensitive activities," Mr Blix said.

"Yet, would Iran not be tempted to do so - for say 25 years - if it were assured supply of uranium fuel for power reactors and could achieve that Israel eliminated its nuclear weapons and stocks and abandoned its sensitive nuclear activities for the same period?"