France talks nuclear power with Israel, but stalls out with Iraq
France is once again broaching a controversial sale of nuclear technology to the Middle East -- but this time with the Israelis and not the Iraqis.
At the same time that President Francois Mitterrand has given the go-ahead to begin discussions about selling a nuclear power station to the Jewish state, negotiations seem stalled to reconstruct the nuclear research reactor near Baghdad that Israeli bombs destroyed last June.
The surprise announcement that Israel and France will hold talks here April 29 and 30 about a nuclear sale came after President Mitterrand's trip to Jerusalem last week.
Although French and Israeli officials stressed that the talks were only preliminary, just the fact that France was considering such a sale underlined the new, evenhanded Mitterrand policy toward the Middle East.
''We want to show that the rules are the same for all countries,'' a Foreign Ministry official explained.
By going to Jerusalem, French officials said, Mr. Mitterrand sought to build up enough goodwill with the Israelis so that they would accept his plan of negotiating a peace deal with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
Although the Israelis dismiss this plan, the new nuclear negotiations are another concrete sign in the warming of Franco-Israeli ties. The negotiations, which will also cover arms sales, will be held by a joint economic commission that has not met since 1967, when President Charles de Gaulle decreed an arms boycott against Israel.
But the Israelis say they are not interested in any French arms. ''They don't have anything we need,'' one Israeli said. What the Israelis do want is the atomic power station to reduce the amount of oil they have to buy.
French sources said the type of reactor to be discussed would be a lightwater Framatome, the power of which has not yet been determined. The French have already exported this type of reactor, which is built under a Westinghouse design, to South Africa, South Korea, and Belgium.
One major stumbling block to the sale is the French insistence on safeguards. Israel has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and in announcing the coming discussions, President Mitterrand stressed that the Israelis must ''accept an international control system'' over any new French installation.
The Israelis have long sought an American nuclear power reactor, ''but every discussion ended when we told them it must be put under international safeguards ,'' an American official here said.
Still, the American added that a Franco-Israeli deal could be worked out, because the French may just insist on inspection of the new site. Since the French already sold the Israelis an uninspected nuclear research reactor in 1956 , ''the Israelis very likely already have nuclear capacity and have no incentive for hiding anything with the new reactor,'' the American said.
Safeguards are proving even more of a stumbling block in the other French nuclear sale in the Middle East, that of the rebuilding of the Iraqi installation. Last summer, France and Iraq reached a political agreement, paving the way for the eventual reconstruction of the reactor.
But since the countries signed the original agreement in 1975, the French have divised a fuel process that would make it much more difficult for the Iraqis to use the installation, once restored, for military ends. The Mitterrand government has announced that it will rebuild the reactor only with the recently developed ''caramel,'' a very lightly enriched reactor fuel the color of caramel.
Although neither side is commenting officially, Western officials are saying privately that the talks are snagged primarily over the caramel fuel issue. The Iraqis want the same kind of fuel that was being supplied for the original plant. That was 93 percent enriched uranium - definitely weapons grade - compared with caramel's enrichment level of under 10 percent.
Just before President Mitterrand visited Israel, Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson met with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, but no progress on the reactor talks has been reported.
''We don't sell a nuclear reactor like a car,'' was the only comment a French Foreign Ministry spokesman would offer.
Even if the French stick to their intention of supplying only caramel fuel, this would not totally prevent the Iraqis from using it for military purposes.
Still, Iraq wants a research reactor, not a commercial power plant like the Israelis. The main purpose of a research reactor, they say, will be to ensure the training of their own nuclear engineers.