France is determined to go through with its plans to sell Iraq two experimental nuclear reactors and a substantial quantity of nearly weapons-grade enriched uranium -- despite Israeli charges that it could lead to an eventual nuclear war in the Middle East.
The French are under heavy economic pressure not to change their minds. Iraq is France's second most important oil supplier after Saudi Arabia, and France's third most important trading partner (after Japan and West Germany).
In addition, French military sales to Iraq total more than $1.5 billion. They include the sale of a sophisticated electronic fence for Iraq's border, Pluton surface-to-surface missiles, and an agreement for the joint development of France's Mirage-4000 bomber, which has so far been too expensive (at $25 million) for the French Air Force to buy.
The United States, which would like to see Iraq replace Iran as a stabilizing force in the Middle East, has also carefully refrained from raising objections to the nuclear sale.
The uranium being sold to Iraq for an atomic research reactor known as "Osirak" outside Baghdad is enriched to the point where it is 93 percent pure. Weapons-grade uranium is normally 97 percent pure -- although 93 percent is considered sufficient for a bomb. Uranium normally used in reactors for electric power needs to be enriched only about 3 percent.The French explain that the reactors they are selling the Iraqis are for training and experimental purposes, so they use a much richer mixture.
In fact, the French did try to sell the Iraqis an alternate system using 7 percent enriched uranium, nicknamed "caramel," which would have made it impossible for the Iraqis to build a bomb. The Iraqis refused and began applying stiff economic pressure to get the near weapons-grade mixture. The French quickly knuckled under, explaining to critics that the "caramel" mixture was not perfected enough yet for export.
In the debate that has ensued, the French have tried to maintain that international controls will keep the Iraqis from using the uranium for military purposes. Although the contract is for 75 kilograms -- theoretically enough for five or six bombs -- the French point out that the reactor uses only 15 kilograms of uranium. French officials say they will ship only 15 kilograms of uranium at a time so they will be able to guarantee the uranium is not sidetracked.
The Iraqi operation will be under the surveillance of the International Atomic Energy Commission, and about 100 French technicians as well. Iraq, the French also point out, has signed the nuclear nonproliferation treaty.
To some critics, the French arguments have a disturbing similarity to those France used when it wanted to sell a nuclear reprocessing plant to Pakistan in the mid- 1970s. The deal, which would have allowed the Pakistanis to generate their own plutonium, was finally shelved at the insistence of the United States, and notably of the US Secretary of State at that time, Henry Kissinger. The Pakistanis, who had previously touted the need for an "Islamic" bomb, promptly dropped the idea of using plutonium and opted for enriched uranium instead. They were able to set up their own uranium enrichment plant by buying up parts through a series of dummy companies they had secretly set up in Europe. When the French ambassador and charge d'affaires tried to get a glimpse of the enrichment plant, they were beaten and nearly killed by Pakistani thugs.
The Iraqis, like the Pakistanis, have been putting their eggs in more than one basket. In January, they signed a contract with Brazil to obtain uranium, help in training technicians, and help in prospecting for uranium in Iraq. Brazil, which imports 40 percent of its oil from Iraq, was only too happy to oblige.
Italy, which imports 20 percent of its oil from Iraq, also signed a contract to provide four nuclear research centers, at a cool price tag of $50 million. In a contract signed last March, Portugal also agreed to supply Iraq with a quantity of enriched uranium.
About the only one who seems alarmed by all of this is Israel, which predicts that Iraq will have the potential of building a bomb by 1985.
On April 6, 1979, at La-Seyne-sur-Mer, a seven-man commando group blew up the cooling circuits of two French reactors destined for Iraq. Israel never publicly assumed any responsibility for the raid, but intelligence circles here were generally convinced that it was the work of the Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency.
On June 16 of this year, the head of Iraq's atomic program, Yahia Mashad, was assassinated in his Paris hotel room. Dr. Mashad, an Egyptian, had been approached by Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi to work on a Libyan project, before opting for Iraq instead. A few days after the murder, a key witness died under suspicious circumstances. Regardless of who was responsible, Dr. Mashad's death is not likely to slow down the Iraqi project very much.
The French, who are currently training 15 Iraqi technicians at their nuclear installation at Saclay, outside Paris, say there is nothing to worry about. French Foreign Minister Jean Francois-Poncet insists, "Nearly all the experimental reactors functioning in the world today, and especially those used by the US, use this kind of fuel."
To the Israelis, who are believed to have more than 10 atomic bombs of their own, that is not much consolation. After all it was the French who helped Israel set up its own nuclear research facility at Dimona 20 years ago.