Nicosia, Cyprus — When the people from the mythical country of Grand Fenwick discovered the world's only Q-bomb, they became, in the words of one of its citizens, "the most powerful nation in the world."
Grand Fenwick, the mouse of a nation that roared in the farcical movie of the same name, used the Q-bomb threat to promote international disarmament.
Would a Middle Eastern nation with the A-bomb be as benevolent?
Of all the real or imagined conspiracies in the Middle East, none arouses more foreboding than the nuclear weapons race. The dozen or so limited wars now in progress in the region, the untempered rhetoric that daily flies across desert and sand dune, and the ever-present potential for a major Arab-Israeli conflagration indicate that the restraint factor, which so far has been present with other nuclear powers, might be missing among Middle Eastern nations.
Many regional analysts wonder if the superpower-inspired doctrine of "mutually assured destruction" would hold back some of the hotter heads in this part of the world --or if a one-shot opportunity to bomb Tel Aviv, Tehran, or Delhi might not be too much for some grudge-bearer to resist.
Israel almost surely has possessed atomic bombs, or the capability to manufacture them quickly, since the 1960s, the US Central Intelligence Agency reported as long ago as 1974. In a recent ABC news report, former Egyptian Defense Minister Kamal Hassan Ali said he believed Israel has 27 nuclear bombs at the ready.
Nuclear weaponry, which Israeli officials refuse to confirm or deny, is meant as a hedge against the numerical superiority of Arab countries. One of the reasons energy-poor Israel has not been constructing nuclear power plants for electricity generating is that it refuses to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, a prerequisite for transfer of American nuclear technology.
Libya, Iraq, and Pakistan are all seeking nuclear capabillity, each for its own reasons, but each, the Israelis point out, with the potential for turning the weapons against Israel.
Pakistan's program is the most advanced in the Middle East and is motivated greatly by concern about India's nuclear capabilities. When India detonated its first nuclear device in May 1974, Pakistan's then prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, pronounced the development "grave and serious." Just before he was deposed in 1977, Bhutto said Pakistan was "on the threshold of full nuclear capability."
There are more than 550 nuclear scientists and engineers in Pakistan. A recent analysis of reactor potential showed that Pakistan by the late 1980s could be producing bombs of 1 to 20 kilotons. The martial-law government of President Zia ul-Haq is believed to be continuing toward Bhutto's goal, working at this time on a centrifuge plant to separate plutonium 239 or uranium 235 from spent nuclear fuel. Parts for the plant have been bought in Europe by West German and Dutch front organizations.
Western analysts believe Libya is cooperating with Pakistan in the nuclear project.
Libya has been obtaining uranium from Niger. On April 12, Niger's President, Col. Seyni Kountche, said his country had sold 450 tons of uranium to Libya and may well sell more. (Niger is the world's fourth-largest uranium producer at 4, 000 tons per year.) Kountche has said that Niger needs the money so badly that "if the devil asks me to sell him uranium today, I will sell it to him."
Western analysts believe the Niger uranium is being passed on to Pakistan by Libya's leader, Col. Muammar Qaddafi. There is speculation that Pakistan will share its new bomb with Qaddafi. At the end of 1974, Qaddafi observed that "the future will be for the atom. . . . Atomic weapons will be like traditional ones. . . . And we in Libya will have our share of this new weapon."
Israeli specialists on Libya say one of the reasons for continuing good relations between Libya and Pakistan is Colonel Qaddafi's nuclear ambition. Analysts say Qaddafi's refusal in February to give sanctuary to Pakistani hijackers en route from Syria was motivated in part by his desire to maintain his ties to the Zia government.
Just as a bulky but nonetheless effective A-bomb could be carried aboard a Pakistani Mirage jet or C-140 transport, a similar bomb could be carried aboard a Libyan MIG or C-140. Israeli and Egyptian air defenses could deter Libya at present, but Qaddafi might be able to use a bomb to intimidate his smaller neighbors, such as Tunisia and Malta. Or he could force shotgun mergers in the Sahel area and piece together his dreamed-of Saharan Islamic union.
"The economic and political vulnerability of these countries is already being exploited by Qaddafi's money and his ambition," says an Israeli analyst. "A bomb could really put the pressure on."
The Iraqi nuclear program has developed independent of the Pakistani-Libyan one. Analysts say it has been set back somewhat by damage to the Iraqi reactor last fall at the start of the Iran-Iraq war. An unmarked F-5 plane bombed the plant: There is speculation that the plane was Israeli.
Prerevolutionary Iran and present-day Egypt both have had the potential for joining the nuclear club. Both, however, ha ve signed the nonproliferation agreement and lack both the capital and the uranium to build a bomb rapidly.