Nukes in Iraq -- and Elsewhere

July 10, 1991

This time, in Iraq, the nuclear genie was pushed back into the bottle. But only after the United States threatened new aerial strikes to enforce a Security Council resolution requiring the Baghdad regime to eliminate weapons of mass destruction.

What about next time? The world can hardly count on every rogue dictator to be as stupid and blatant as Saddam Hussein. Unless the Non-Proliferation Treaty is toughened to permit the International Atomic Energy Agency to conduct sudden challenge inspections of suspect nuclear facilities wherever they exist, nuclear genies will make the next century a nightmare.

It is ironic that U.S. opposition to a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty prevented the strengthening of the IAEA last November as the gulf war was reaching a showdown. Mexico spoke for many non-nuclear powers when it insisted on linking a comprehensive test ban to tighter controls on the spread of nuclear weaponry. Both sides were too unyielding. As a result, the international community lost an opportunity to improve the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the most comprehensive arms control agreement ever conceived.

Now precedents being set by Saddam's bloody-mindedness may give the world another chance. For the first time in history, international inspectors are on the soil of a nuclear miscreant with authority to probe where they wish and destroy weapons of mass destruction or facilities that could lead to their manufacture. Iraq typically tried to thwart this whole operation. It bluffed, concealed and even threatened United Nations inspection teams. But when it became clear it was inviting renewed U.S. bombing attacks, it suddenly acknowledged it had been violating the Non-Proliferation Treaty for years.

Iraq's 29-page confession disclosed three parallel programs to make enriched uranium, the stuff of atomic bombs, by electromagnetic, centrifugal and chemical separation processes. Granted, the methods were primitive by modern standards. And Iraq admitted to having made only one pound of slightly enriched uranium, as compared to the 55 pounds of highly enriched uranium required for a Hiroshima-type bomb. But there is no confirmation or assurance that Saddam Hussein, a self-admitted liar, has revealed all there is to know. Washington should continue the pressure.

Once the Iraq genie is rebottled, the focus must be on genies elsewhere. The Non-Proliferation Treaty should be upgraded to give the IAEA inspection powers it needs to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. The signs are propitious. Superpowers are reducing nuclear arsenals. South Africa and France, both longtime holdouts, are signing the 1968 treaty. There is a move to curb weapons sales in the Middle East and make it a nuclear-free zone. Even China and North Korea are being more cooperative. There are still problem countries -- India, Pakistan, Brazil, Argentina, Israel and Iran among them -- but the Iraq opening should not be missed.

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