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Nukes: what the US can do

Thanks to the Israeli attack on Iraq, nuclear proliferation is again at the center of public attention. The question is whether the pitch of concern is such as to produce renewed international efforts to bring this awesome problem under control. Every inhabitant of the globe must hope that it is.

One positive note is that President Reagan has been sharply sensitized to the issue. When he was still campaigning for the presidency, Mr. Reagan astonished many people when he said that the US should not try to stop other countries from building their own nuclear weapons because "I just don't think it's any of our business." Asked about the issue at his recent news conference, however, the President was more in line with the GOP platform -- and with previous Carter policy -- in stating:

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"Our position is -- and it is unqualified -- that we are opposed to the proliferation of nuclear weapons and do everything in our power to prevent it."

To follow through on this unequivocal reaffirmation of US policy should be a priority objective of the Reagan administration. And we can think of two areas that could be addressed immediately.

One is to require a quid pro quo from Pakistan on its nuclear development in return for the $3 billion military and economic aid package which the United States is offering. In a dubious move the Senate Foreign Relations Committee went along with the administration's request to waive the current law prohibiting the US from aiding nations that pursue nuclear enrichment technology and refuse to give assurances that they are not developing atomic weapons. It is not too late to turn back that waiver.

The case for helping Pakistan to defend itself against the enlarged Soviet threat on its borders with Afghanistan, and for shoring up the overall Western strategic posture in Southeast Asia, admittedly is a strong one. But must the West's stake in halting the spread of nuclear weapons be sacrificed in the process? With Pakistan under suspicion in the process? With Pakistan under suspicion of developing in atomic bomb to match the nuclear-weapon capacity India already possesses, the dangers of inaction on the question are self-evident. If ever there was a politically propitious time to demand a price of Pakistan, that time is now.

Secondly, why not pursue an idea which the Israelis themselves have promoted -- a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East? Obviously the Arabs do not take kindly to a proposal seen to be offered as a political ploy. They, after all, do not have any nuclear weapons. Israel, on the other hand, is widely thought to have the capability for assembling them quickly -- or perhaps to have gone beyond that to actual stockpiling. Such suspicion is heightened by the fact that Israel has a missile which serves no logical purpose other than for the delivery of a nuclear weapon.

It must strike the American people as odd that, for all the military and economic aid which the US has given Israel -- that aid accounts for almost half of the total US aid budget this year -- it has never demanded that Israel sign the nuclear nonproliferation treaty (NPT). Can it be thought unreasonable that the US government insist that Israel place itself under the international system of nuclear inspection? The irony in the situation is that Iraq ism a signatory of the NPT and has accepted international inspection and safeguards. If the US is sincere in its desire to forestall the development of nuclear weapons -- and the spread of preemptive strikes like the one which took place in Iraq -- it ought to nudge Israel into the international treaty. Then the basis would be laid for negotiating the nuclear-free zone which israel says it wants.

Many other steps can be taken, including strengthening safeguards on nuclear facilities and establishing an international system for storing spent fuel. Not least of all there is the need for the superpowers to return to negotiations to bring their nuclear arms competition under control as called for by the treaty they both helped shape. If the two major nuclear powers are unwilling to curb their appetite for weapons, how can the nonnuclear states be persuaded that they themselves should exercise restraint? Or that a nuclear bomb is not a desirable and usable weapon?

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Clearly the President has some strong political domestic pressures to fend off if he is in earnest about nuclear nonproliferation. He confronts a powerful pro-Israel lobby in Congress. He no doubt is sympathetic to the American nuclear-power industry looking for overseas sales of reactors. And he is sensitive to those of his own party who place highest priority on a get-tough stance toward the Soviet Union. It will take no little political courage and moral vision to surmount these pressures at home. But this is what will be required if the United States is to help avert a proliferation of nuclear bombs around the world -- with all the uncertainties and perils that implies.

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