VIENNA  - Iran and Israel clashed at the annual meeting of the UN atomic agency on Thursday, further throwing into doubt a hoped-for 2012 conference on creating a zone in the Middle East free of nuclear weapons.

In lively debates at the International Atomic Energy Agency gathering of its 155 member states, Iran said that Israel should accede to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty aimed at stopping the spread of nuclear weapons. “At present the Israeli regime is the only non-party to the NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) in this region despite repeated calls by the international community,” Iran’s envoy to the IAEA Ali Asghar Soltanieh said. “Peace and stability cannot be achieved in the Middle East while the massive nuclear arsenal of that regime continues to threaten the region and beyond,” he said. Israel’s envoy Ehud Azoulay in turn pointed the finger at Iran and Syria, saying “the most significant threats to the nuclear non-proliferation regime are those ... that pursue weapons under the guise of their NPT membership”.

“It is Iran which represents the greatest threat to peace and security in the Middle East and beyond. No words in this room could distort the real facts behind Iran’s drive to nuclear weapons,” he said. Neither Iran nor Israel has said whether they plan to attend a conference being organised by Finland on creating a Middle East free of atomic weapons that is meant to be held before the end of the year.  But Shaul Horev, the head of Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC), said at the IAEA on Wednesday that the “current volatile and hostile” situation in the region was not “conducive” to the creation of such a zone.

“Such a process can only be launched when peaceful relations exist for a reasonable period of time in the region,” Horev said, according to a transcript of his speech.

Soltanieh, Iran’s envoy, said on Thursday that the “irresponsible behaviour of this (Israeli) regime ... has put the establishment of such a zone in the region for the near future in serious doubt,” calling Israel the “only obstacle”.

At the IAEA meeting, member states meanwhile approved with a crushing majority on Thursday a call for all Mideast countries to accede to the NPT, in a move that was slammed by the United States envoy, Robert Wood.

“Israel recognises the importance of the non-proliferation regime ... yet proven experience in the Middle East has shown that the NPT does not provide a remedy to the security challenges of the region,” the deputy head of Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission David Danieli said Thursday.

The United States and other Western states abstained, however, instead of voting “no” to reward Arab countries for backing off from tabling a separate resolution singling out Israel. The Arab countries refrained from doing so in order not to further jeopardise the Middle East conference.