Syria, itself suspected of illicit nuclear activity, accused the West at a major U.N. meeting on Wednesday of double standards in implicitly condoning an Israeli atomic arsenal and warned of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
Israel hit back at the annual assembly of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) by saying Syria and its ally Iran were "known for their clandestine pursuit of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction."
The Jewish state also made clear its view that the volatile region was not yet ready for creating a zone free of such weaponry, which Arab states have been pushing for.
"Such a process can only be launched when peaceful relations exist for a reasonable period of time in the region," Israeli atomic energy commission head Shaul Chorev said. "Regrettably, the realities in the Middle East are far from being conducive."
The United States said last week Syria was using the "brutal repression" of its people waging an uprising as an excuse not to address international concerns about its past nuclear work.
U.N. inspectors have long sought access to a site in Syria's desert Deir al-Zor region that U.S. intelligence reports say was a nascent, North Korean-designed reactor designed to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons before Israel bombed it in 2007.
The IAEA has also been requesting information about three other sites that may have been linked to Deir al-Zor, which Syria says was a conventional military site.
Syrian Ambassador Bassam Al-Sabbagh, in a rare public comment on the issue, insisted that his country was ready to cooperate with the U.N. agency and he sought to turn the tables on Damascus's accusers by hitting out at Israel.
Israel is believed to have the Middle East's only nuclear arsenal, although it refuses to disclose any capability. Like its ally the United States, the Jewish state sees Iran's nuclear program as the most urgent nuclear proliferation threat.
"HOSTILE MIDDLE EAST"
Clearly referring to Washington and its allies, Al-Sabbagh told the IAEA's General Conference in Vienna:
"The fact that some influential states ... condone Israel's possession of nuclear capabilities and its failure to subject them to any international control exposes clearly the extent of double standards used by those states."
He said that this "poses a threat to the region's security and stability and may even spark a nuclear arms race there" and that Israel was the main obstacle to ridding the region of atomic weaponry.
Israel has said it would sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and renounce nuclear weapons only as part of a broader Middle East peace deal with Arab states and Iran that guaranteed its security.
Chorev, the Israeli delegate, said the concept of a region free of weapons of mass destruction "is certainly much less applicable to the current volatile and hostile" Middle East and would require a significant transformation in the region.
Iran says its nuclear program is peaceful, denying Western and Israeli suspicions that it wants to develop an atom bomb capability. Syria also denies any such ambitions.
IAEA chief Yukiya Amano said this year that Syria had asked for understanding of its "delicate situation" in response to requests for Syrian cooperation with his inspectors.
President Bashar al-Assad is fighting an 18-month-old revolt in which more than 27,000 people have been killed.
Chorev said the situation in Syria was a reminder of the need to secure nuclear materials and added that the whereabouts of atomic fuel intended for the destroyed Deir al-Zor reactor was an "enigma".
Editing by Rosalind Russell