VIENNA: The refusal by most EU countries to back Egypt s call for a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East at a UN conference last month appears to be causing friction between Cairo and Europe.
Egypt has been asking the countries to explain their opposition, diplomatic sources in Vienna, where the conference was held, told AFP.
In a letter, Cairo expressed surprise and regret at the decision by 25 EU countries not to endorse its call for a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East at the UN nuclear watchdog s annual conference in September, diplomats said.
The International Atomic Energy Agency has always reached a consensus when voting on such a motion – contained in a wider resolution entitled Application of IAEA Safeguards in the Middle East – at past general conferences.
But that was not the case this year, as Egypt proposed a revised wording and the insertion of several paragraphs seemingly aimed at Israel, although the Jewish state was not named explicitly.
Israel is the Middle East s sole, if undeclared, nuclear power.
Only 53 countries voted in favor of the resolution, while 47 countries, including 25 EU members, abstained and the United States and Israel voted against, as they have done in the past.
European diplomats complained that Egypt had tabled the changed wording of the resolution at the last minute, giving them insufficient time to discuss it.
If you move from A to B and want people to applaud you for doing so, then you first have to discuss openly how you intend to get there, a diplomat said.
A European diplomat also told AFP on condition of anonymity: The Egyptians wanted to use the sort of language usually reserved for the UN in New York, but not here in Vienna.
It s a different context. New York is political, while Vienna is much more technical, this diplomat said.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said in his letter to EU members that Cairo is unaware of the substantive reasons that led to such a decision being taken by your country and I would therefore greatly appreciate your views on the matter.
Egypt and other Muslim countries see Israel as the main nuclear threat in the region.
For its part, the West views Iran as the greatest threat to peace in the Middle East, with the United States accusing Tehran of trying to develop an atomic bomb under guise of a peaceful nuclear energy drive.
The matter is no source of real tension between Europe and Cairo: Egypt is a very important and very respected partner for the EU, particularly on this matter, a diplomat said.
But while one diplomat said the letter should not be seen as some sort of protest on Egypt s part, European diplomats insisted that consensus could only be re-established if Cairo agreed to drop the offending paragraphs.
The countries had very clear reasons for abstaining, one European diplomat said.
The EU wants to get back to the position two years ago, when this resolution was adopted by consensus, said another. Because the EU had not acted collectively in the vote — Ireland voted in favor of the resolution, while the Austrian delegation had not been present — no common response to Egypt s letter would be drawn up, leaving each state to answer individually, diplomats said.
But there was consultation between the countries and a similar wording might be found, they said. The resolution is almost certain to be tabled again at next year s IAEA general conference, which runs from Sept. 29 to Oct. 3, 2008.