Thoughts on a Muslim bomb

By , Richard Wilson is professor of physics and researcher in the Energy and Environmental Policy Center, Harvard University.

As a boy I was taught that the country between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers is the cradle of civilization. I heard of the hanging gardens of Babylon; of the court of the Caliph Haroun-al-Rashid; and of the destruction of Babylon by the Mongol invaders.

The country -- now called Iraq -- has therefore always had a fascination for me, as I am sure it has for many readers. Therefore, as a nuclear physicist, I find considerable interest in how it enters the nuclear age.

My first account was from a nuclear physicist -- with a Ph.D from the University of California -- who had married an Iraqi. She described the struggles of a Westerner trying to teach elementary physics in a country where educated women were rarities.

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The present Iraqi government seems to want to establish a place as a leader in nuclear research in the Arab world, and its pretensions in this direction bring a mixture of alarms and interest, hope and dismay.

Newspapers report that Iraq wants to make an atomic bomb. Efraim Kishon, writing in the Jerusalem Post, accused France of selling Iraq "nuclear arms at a discount." Indeed, many Arab leaders have said that if there is "a Jewish bomb" built by Israel, there should be "a Muslim bomb" built by someone else. Moreover, many of them seem to believe that Israel already possesses nuclear weapons -- which may or may not be true. Is Iraq building such a bomb, or does it wish to do so?

The Soviet Union has always been very careful to ensure that the countries within its sphere of influence do not develop nuclear weapons, and all have signed the nonproliferation treaty (NPT). This applies to Iraq. The French have recently sold Iraq a nuclear research reactor which uses uranium enriched to 93 percent in uranium 235. This uranium is therefore "bomb grade" although there is not enough to make a bomb.

But this reactor and its operation are subject to regular inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna. There is no reason to believe that the Iraqis have tried to violate this treaty in any way and, while the Iraqi-Iran war proceeds, the enriched uranium core is in safe storage below the reactor.

The Indians used a research reactor supplied by Canada to produce plutonium for a bomb, and it is possible that the Israelis have used a research reactor supplied by the French for the same purpose. But neither of those countries signed the NPT, and neither reactor has been open to inspection. In this respect, therefore, the Iraqis have complied with all the requests of the international community, and it would seem that they deserve our support.

The iraqi atomic energy effort has had other problems. Husain Al Shahristani , a Shi'ite Muslim educated at London and Toronto, was director of Radio Chemistry Research in Iraq. On Dec. 9, 1979, he and his Canadian wife and family were arrested as traitors. Dr. Shahristani was tried as a traitor in March 1980 and given the death sentence; although later reports say that this was commuted to life imprisonment, no one (not even his wife) has been able to see him.

Dr. Ja'afar Dhia Ja'afar, a theoretical nuclear physicist trained in London, wrote to Prime Minister Saddam Hussain asking that Shahristani be released -- and Ja'afar has not been seen on the streets of Baghdad since January 1980; he is believed to have been arrested in February and there is no information of his fate. Amnesty International has been interceding on behalf of both men, but with no obvious success.

This is not all. Two years ago, there was sabotage at the French factory building the reactor components. In summer 1980, an Iraqi engineer, visiting France in connection with the reactor, was murdered in Paris.

Soon after the outbreak of the Iraq-Iran war in October 1980 there was an attack on the Iraqi nuclear research center by American-built phantom jets. Although it was originally thought the jets came from Iran, a French report claims that they came from the opposite direction and belonged to another country. Fortunately no damage was done to the reactor itself inside the containment vessel.

This story opens up a number of problems in the handling of nuclear materials. To what extent, if at all, do we try to restrict the access of technical information and, more important, technical know-how? And if we restrict nuclear information, why not other military information? Do we provide information freely to countries that have signed the NPT and withhold it from those countries that have not? If so, why do the newspapers write unfavorably about Libya and Iraq, which signed the NPT, whereas France and Israel, which refuse to sign, have our approval?

I draw two tentative conclusions from these thoughts and questions. The problems of proliferation of nuclear weapons may be more important than, but cannot be considered separately from, other military and foreign policy problems. Seccondly, technical distinctions are of great importance for preventing nuclear proliferation, and it is critically important that all people setting foreign policy understand these distinctions. Unfortunately, as I read our newspapers over the past year, not one could be relied upon for technical accuracy, and some contacts that I have had with foreign service officers leave me discouraged.I suggest a major problem of education and understanding.

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