Israel's spectacular raid intended to stop Iraq building nuclear weapons raises basic questions about the future of the long effort to stop such weapons from spreading around the world.
It also has implications for Libya, for India, and for Pakistan, and could strengthen Saudi Arabia's request to the US for early-warning radar planes (AWACS), according to experts in London.
Over the last 12 years, concerted diplomatic action in world capitals has produced a Nuclear Non-Porliferation Treaty which now has 115 signatures. But at least 11 nations now are thought to be on or close to the threshold of converting peaceful nuclear know-how into military weapons.
Israel is said here to have already crossed the threshold in secret and to possess a small nuclear stockpile. Pakistan, India, South Africa, Taiwan, and Argentina are thought to be within one to two years away from building their own weapons if they decide to do so.
Brazil, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, and South korea are only a few years behind them. In all, some 30 nations will have the capacity to build weapons by the end of the century.
Israel has now done something new. Not only has it dispatched US- built bombers to bomb the Iraqi Osirak experimental reactor center and its French-supplied technology, but it has done so publicly.
Israel is suspected of having tried before to block construction of the two reactors -- in April 1979, in June 1980, and during the early stages of the Iran-Iraq war. But it admitted nothing. Now it has proclaimed its warning to the Arab world.
According to Theodor Winkler, a research associate at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London and author of two books on proliferation issues, Israel has spotlighted the "gray area" of countries on the nuclear weapons threshold.
In a Monitor interview, he recalled that no nation had publicly admitted acquiring nuclear weapons technology since China detonated its nuclear blast in 1964. Yet more and more nations, many of them in highly unstable third-world areas, had acquired sophisticated nuclear technology.
All deny they are building nuclear weapons, but ambiguity about national intentions is deep. Israel dropped a hint of its own capacities after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, but publicly insists it will not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East. South Africa denies widespread speculation that it has tested a nuclear device.
In the Middle East, much now depends on how badly the largest Iraqi reactor was damaged, and how leader Saddam Hussein reacts, Mr. Winkler believes.
He could ask the new French president, Francois Mitterrand (said to be more antinuclear than his predecessor) to replace damaged apparatus and then continue to deny any Iraqi intention to build weapons for fear of another Israeli raid. Or he could openly hint at his capacity to build such weapons, to try to deter the Israelis.
In theory, Iraq could produce between one and five bombs a year or so from now, from shipments of enriched uranium already provided by France. These are believed to have been hidden in a bombproof tunnel. France had agreed to six shipments of 12 kilograms each: at least one, and maybe more, are thought to have arrived.
However, any longer-term plans Iraq may have had to generate plutonium for a regular supply of bombs appear to have been set back considerably by the Israeli raid.
Mr. Winkler's concern is that if Iraq decided a year or so from now to flex its nuclear weapon muscles more openly, it could mean Iraqi withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. More nations might follow.
This would be serious, since it would also mean Iraq and perhaps other countries flouting International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards.
At the moment, smaller nations on the nuclear weapons threshold appear content to brandish their "nuclear option" -- their capacity to go nuclear if they want to. The question the experts raise is how long they would be satisfied with the option rather than the weapons themselves.
In the short term, Mr. Winkler sees several implications from the Israeli raid:
1. Libya now knows its own program to buy a 10-megawatt research reactor and then a 440-megawatt reactor from the Soviet Union is a possible target for Israeli bombs.
The Libyan program is hastening slowly. The Soviets agreed to build the research reactor in April 1975 and may go ahead with the large one. But Moscow is known to be privately wary of the unpredictable Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi and unwilling to enable him to build weapons.
2. India, seeing the decisive Israeli action, might be tempted to look again at the possibility of attacking Pakistani nuclear reactors near Islamabad. Pakistan installations are protected by air defense missiles. But the Indians are extremely worried about the current Pakistani drive toward sophisticated nuclear technology. Indian Foreign Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao arrived in Islamabad June 8 for talks -- with indian suspicions as a backdrop.
3. Saudi Arabia can now go back to the United states with more arguments in favor of buying electronic, early-warning AWACS aircraft. The US has already sent five such planes with US personnel to monitor events in the Gulf following the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war. The Saudis want to buy several more. The Reagan administration has not formally asked Congress because of ISraeli and other opposition.
Now the Saudis could argue that Israel is even more of a threat to Arab neighbors. If Tel Aviv could bomb a reactor near Baghdad the Saudis could say, why not Saud i or other Arab oil fields?