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By Dan Williams
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli and Iranian nuclear envoys held an unprecedented, if brief, exchange of views last month at a closed-door Middle East disarmament conference in Egypt, an Israeli official said on Thursday.
Israel and Iran attended a September 29-30 Cairo meeting of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, an unofficial forum established by the Australian and Japanese governments, the group's Web site said.
An Israeli official with knowledge of the talks said that at one point Iran's delegate, Ali Ashghar Soltanieh, asked his Israeli counterpart, Meirav Zafary-Odiz, about her country's nuclear capabilities.
"She gave her answers, and later the Israeli delegation addressed a question in the same vein to the Iranians, which was answered," the official said, adding that the exchange happened in open session and that the sides did not converse separately.
The Islamic republic's decades-old refusal to recognise the Jewish state has honed global fears about a nuclear project that Tehran insists is peaceful, but that Israelis -- assumed to have the region's only atomic arsenal -- consider a mortal threat.
Israel does not discuss its nuclear capabilities under an "ambiguity" policy billed as warding off enemies while avoiding the kind of public provocations that can trigger arms races.
While world powers are trying to talk Iran into curbing technology with bomb-making potential, some analysts see Israel examining options such as indirect diplomacy to defuse the perceived threat, as well as preemptive strikes or enhanced defences.
According to Israel's Channel One television, the Cairo exchange was not entirely civil. "There were questions about who has atomic weapons, who wants atomic weapons, with voices rising, at times," said the station's Middle East affairs correspondent, Oded Granot.
NO WALKOUT, THIS TIME
Israeli and Iranian envoys often participate in U.N. forums such as the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, where Soltanieh is Tehran's ambassador.
But the Israeli official said the Cairo talks were unprecedented in that they featured face-to-face dialogue. "Usually in such forums the Iranian delegates walk out when the Israelis speak," the official said.
Asked about the exchange, a spokeswoman for Israel's Atomic Energy Commission, where Zafary-Odiz holds a senior position, said only: "Such an event did take place."
Iranian officials had no comment.
Word of the meeting resurfaced in Israeli daily Haaretz on Thursday after Australian newspaper The Age broke it last week.
The U.N. nuclear watchdog presented a draft deal on Wednesday to Iran and three world powers on reducing Tehran's stockpile of enriched uranium.
However, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak called on Thursday on world powers to halt Iran's enrichment of uranium altogether. "If the enrichment is not stopped then the result would be that Iran has gained legitimacy to enrich inside its territory," Barak said in a speech in Jerusalem.
"Not only should enriched material be removed, but enrichment must be stopped in Iran," Barak said, adding that there was only a "short and limited time" for the diplomacy, before "serious and immediate sanctions" should be imposed on Iran.
Iran has not said whether it would endorse the draft plan that Western diplomats say would require Tehran to send 1.2 tonnes of its known 1.5 tonne reserve of low-enriched uranium to Russia and France by the end of the year. The material would be converted into fuel for a nuclear medicine facility in Tehran.
The International Atomic Energy Agency has asked Iran and the three powers -- France, Russia and the United States -- to approve the deal by Friday.
(Additional reporting by Allyn Fisher-Ilan in Jerusalem, Alastair Sharp in Cairo and Fredrik Dahl in Tehran; Editing by David Stamp)

Reuters