JERUSALEM Oct. 22, 2009 — -- Israeli and Iranian nuclear officials have met for the first time since Iran's shah was deposed in 1979 to discuss non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament, officials confirmed to ABC News today.
The meeting occurred as Israel - which has a nuclear arsenal - has threatened to destroy Iran's clandestine nuclear program. With that as a backdrop, the meeting might be considered somewhat of a breakthrough.
"This was only a semi-official get together, but the fact the Iranians agreed to sit in the same room with us on this sensitive issue is significant," a senior official of the Israeli government told ABC News.
The meeting was organized by the International Commission on Nuclear Non Proliferation and Disarmament. Both the Arab League and the U.S. sent representatives. It took place in Cairo's Four Seasons Hotel on Sept. 29 and 30.
The Israeli representative was Meirav Zafary-Odiz, director of policy at Israel Atomic Energy Commission, and the Iranians sent Ali Ashgar Soltanieh the Islamic Republic's delegate to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Israel Still Skeptical of Iranian Cooperation
There were no one-on-one meetings between the Israeli and the Iranian, according to the Israeli government official who spoke to ABC News on conditions of anonymity due to sensitivity of the issue. However, both delegates took part in small forums and direct verbal exchanges took place across the table.
They took part in three separate discussions on declaring the Middle East a nuclear free zone, preventing proliferation and the use of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.
In one of the sessions, according to those present, Soltanieh directly asked his Israeli counterpart in a loud voice: "Do you or do you not have nuclear weapons?"
Zafary-Odiz smiled, but did not respond. Israel launched its own clandestine nuclear program in the 1960s and ever since has conducted what it calls a policy of ambiguity with regard to its nuclear capabilities. Israel is widely credited with its own arsenal of nuclear weapons, but refuses to confirm this or disclose any details.
This policy has long been criticised by Arab states and while some seek to develop their own nuclear programs outisde international agreements on non-proliferation, Israel's continued reluctance to talk about its own program or allow outside inspections have become major bones of contention in the region.
There has been little comment so far from the Israeli government over the draft deal currently under discussion in Vienna. The deal agreed by Friday might allow Iran to ship most of its enriched uranium out of the country for conversion into fuel rods for its experimental reactor.
Unnamed Israeli officials say they will not comment until they know the details of the deal.
Israel papers Thursday stressed such a deal would delay Iran's supposed progress towards making a bomb by a year or two. Israeli officials have long cautioned against optimism in the Obama adminstration's dialogue with Tehran. They fear the Irnanians are developing their program at secret sites like the one recently uncovered near the holy city of Qom.
But details of the recent and highly unusual Cairo meetings indicate the Israelis are not against direct talks with the Iranians themselves.