VIENNA, Austria -- The fuss over Iran -- the major investment by the French oil company, Total, and the alleged indirect support of Russia for Iran's nuclear bomb program -- is taking our eyes off the real ball.
It was the same three years ago when Central Intelligence Agency leaks about North Korea's bomb ambitions were part of an effort to steamroller President Clinton into ordering the bombing of North Korea's nuclear installations.
The real issue in terms of imminent danger, both then and now, is the Russian mafia.
''The director of the FBI, Louis Freeh, has warned that Russian organized crime networks pose a menace to U.S. national security and has asserted that there is now greater danger of a nuclear attack by some outlaw group than there was by the Soviet Union during the Cold War,'' the Washington Post reported.
In conversation, Munir Ahmed Khan, the former chairman of the world's nuclear watchdog body, the International Atomic Energy Agency, confirms that opinion here is moving in the same direction as Mr. Freeh's.
Mr. Khan, commenting on the recent allegations made by the former Russian general and national security adviser, Alexander Lebed, that the mafia has stolen Soviet-era nuclear suitcase bombs, says that if this is true they would be usable:
''Competent nuclear scientists, of which there are many out of work and in economic difficulties, could be hired to keep them operational.'' His view is contrary to statements made by Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin's government.
Mr. Khan knows a thing or two about undercover bomb work. He masterminded, against all the odds, the clandestine manufacture of Pakistan's nuclear bomb.
Iran, even if it is trying to develop a nuclear bomb, North Korea, if it has ever been, are both unlikely ever to use them. ''Rogues'' they may be. Suicidal they are not.
Both live in neighborhoods where a move to deploy such weapons would be met with a debilitating blitzkrieg. As Pakistan does, these countries would keep their nukes in the background, partly deterrent, partly prestige item.
The Russian mafia -- and the people it does business with -- is another matter.
If they do trade in nuclear weapons, the danger will not be with governments with a fixed address, where Washington, Moscow, London, Paris or even Beijing know where to retaliate
It will be with a free-lance terrorist group of no fixed abode, determined to use blackmail to secure a particular objective.
It could be to force the withdrawal of the Turkish army from Kurdish areas or Israel from its settlements in the West Bank or to demand release of jailed Colombian drug barons.
Mr. Freeh promised ''drastic steps to prevent and detect'' nuclear weapons falling into the hands of Russian criminal gangs. Yet at the same time he admitted that the Russian syndicates, with former KGB officers in the hierarchy, run the most sophisticated criminal operations ever seen in the United States.
What ''drastic steps'' does Mr. Freeh have up his sleeve? Former CIA director John M. Deutch, commenting on the statement that ''the U.S. government is effectively organized to address the terrorist threat,'' said two words: ''Ha, ha.''
Every policy-maker should read his article in the latest issue of Foreign Policy. Its point is obvious: America is wide open to nuclear terrorist blackmail.
Nevertheless, the White House is being very careful to keep the lid on the debate, for fear it could unnerve and alarm public opinion.
The officials' caution and reticence is understandable. For decades, Washington justified the possession of nuclear weapons as creating a stable balance of power.
All through the Cold War it paid little or no attention to the now-known dangers of atmospheric testing or to those who warned that nuclear weapons were a Faustian bargain and would inevitably fall into the wrong hands.
Washington, London, Paris, Bonn, Rome, Ottawa and Tokyo (the G-7) missed the historic opportunity of the century to put Russia the right way up when they refused to provide the financial wherewithal to enable Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev to make what could have been a relatively smooth transition from rigid communism to a more liberal set-up, something short of today's present Wild West capitalism.
They repeated their mistake when they, led by President George Bush, refused the Russian president, Mr. Yeltsin, help in late 1991. Washington sent as the sole emissary a Treasury undersecretary whose job was to insist to the new Russian government that it honor the old Soviet debt.
Only 2 percent of NATO defense spending would have done the job and avoided nearly eight years of economic turmoil and, not least, the emergence of the mafia that now threatens us.
No doubt Washington would like to deal with this grave crisis without having to throw into relief its past errors. Common sense suggests the White House is working with Moscow to try quietly to buy off the would-be nuclear terrorists.
One wishes the authorities well, for if they fail it will be the greatest tragedy to befall humanity since Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.
Pub Date: 10/14/97