Israel, Iran attend arms talks in Brussels

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Both Israel and Iran took part in a European nonproliferation conference in Brussels this week. The meeting, first reported by the Guardian, was held to advance uncertain prospects for a conference on transforming the Middle East into a zone free of weapons of mass destruction, which Finland is due to host later this year.

But many eyes were on the dynamic between the two arch enemy nations. The diplomatic encounter comes as world powers expect to hold a new round of P5+1 talks with Iran later this month, and amid a recent uptick in rumored contacts exploring the possibility of direct US-Iran talks to advance a nuclear deal.

Israeli and European diplomats, for their part, downplayed that the Brussels meeting was anything much out of the ordinary, noting it’s an annual seminar, and that Israeli and Iranian officials had no direct contact at the meeting. “We’re talking here about an EU Seminar that takes place every year with more that 100 people attending,” one European diplomat told Al-Monitor Tuesday. “This was not an Israeli-Iranian meeting, nor were either positive.”

“Sorry to disappoint, but there was absolutely no contact between me and Soltanieh there,” Jeremy Issacharoff, the Israeli diplomat who led the Israeli delegation to the Brussels meeting, told Al-Monitor by email Tuesday, referring to Iran’s envoy to the IAEA Ali Ashgar Soltanieh. “Over recent years, I have been in many seminars and track 2 meetings like this, and believe me, any exchanges are mostly pretty hostile.”

The Israeli delegation, in addition to Issacharoff, Israel’s deputy director general of strategic affairs, included Ariel “Eli” Levite, the former deputy head of Israel’s atomic energy commission, a source at the talks said.

Iran’s delegation, in addition to Soltanieh, included Hamid Aref, the deputy head of Iran’s mission to Belgium and the European Union, and Babee, another diplomat from the Iranian mission in Brussels.

Soltanieh announced Tuesday that Iran plans to attend the Helsinki WMD free zone conference. Israel to date has signaled it is unlikely to attend, but European diplomats continue to try to persuade it to participate. (Soltanieh’s announcement, made in the meeting’s closing session, “scored a PR coup,” the European diplomat said. It was a “smart tactical move by the Iranians, now putting the pressure on the conveners and Israel.”)

Participants in the two-day Brussels seminar offered a mixed take on the atmospherics. “In all the sessions I attended, the tone was respectful and largely positive,” Mark Fitzpatrick, an Iran nuclear expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), told Al-Monitor, adding, however, that “in one breakout session I didn’t attend, some crockery reportedly came close to being broken, but so far, so good.”

While there was “little..concrete outcome from this seminar, … the fact that Iranian and Israeli attendance was quite good is telling,” Dina Esfandiary, also of IISS, said.

Such diplomatic encounters are not quite as rare as advertised–as Issachaoff’s comments indicate–although there is no sign they signal any shift in the two nations’ mutual hostility.

Current and former Israeli and Iranian officials have in fact taken part in various meetings and unofficial dialogues across Europe over the years, including at least two previous meetings this year, Al-Monitor has learned.

Former Israeli intelligence chief Efraim Halevy, in an interview with Al-Monitor last month, alluded to being involved in talks this year with the Iranians, but provided no details. (Those involved in such dialogue efforts have observed, and requested, discretion about discussing them, out of concern that exposure not disrupt them.)

“I have had opportunities to see Iranians,” Halevy said (October 21), in an interview strongly advocating talking with Iran. “The Iranians, in their heart of hearts, would like to get out of their conundrum.”

At one such track 2 dialogue involving former Iranian and Israeli officials this summer, Al-Monitor was told, the Iranians demanded that Israel join the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT). Since the NPT only accepts states, some observers interpreted it as an indirect recognition of Israel.

But veterans of various dialogues cautioned the results of such contacts are quite limited. “I think one should not over-estimate,” one European arms control expert told Al-Monitor Tuesday, noting a public meeting held in Berlin in July 2011 which both Soltanieh and Issacharoff attended. “This does not mean that much. Iran still does not want to talk with Israel.”

“It is extremely good that both Iranians and Israelis were participating to the same meeting,” Paolo Cotta-Ramusino, secretary general of the Pugwash conference, told Al-Monitor by email Tuesday. “This is certainly not the first time that this is happening, and it is probably too soon to claim that the obstacles to a general dialogue in the Middle East have been removed. But it is a sign in the positive direction. Also very positive is the fact that Iran appears to be ready to participate to the Helsinki conference.”

This post was updated Tuesday with additional interviews and reporting.

(Photo: Iran’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh briefs the media after a meeting with IAEA’s chief inspector Herman Nackaerts at the Iranian embassy in Vienna August 24, 2012. REUTERS/Herwig Prammer.)