Argentina's nuclear ambitions

By , Paul G. Buchanan is a senior research fellow specializing in Argentine affairs at the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

The Reagan administration's recent decision to permit the sale of US-produced but West German-owned heavy water to Argentina is very likely to bring grave global consequences. If, as some White House advisers have argued privately, this move is primarily intended to create United States leverage over the Argentine military so that it will be less likely to interfere in the Oct. 30 presidential elections, then the Reagan administration displays a remarkable ignorance of the realities present in the troubled South American nation.

Although the heavy water is formally destined for use in commercial reactors under international safeguards, much of Argentina's nuclear program remains outside international scrutiny. More important, even the commercial reactors are under outright military control, which allows the armed forces the opportunity to interfere and screen out many safeguard requirements.

Argentina has the most advanced nuclear program in Latin America, with two operational commercial reactors, two reprocessing labs, an enrichment plant, several research reactors, and ample domestic uranium reserves. Few of these facilities are under international safeguards and the country's military junta doesn't have to answer to any civilian authorities or political parties. In fact , Argentina is not a full party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Treaty of Tlatelolco (creating a nuclear-free zone in Latin America), and a number of other arms control agreements. For years it has maintained the right to ''peaceful'' nuclear explosives, although this is widely recognized as tantamount to de facto weapons capability.

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An additional cause for concern is the fact that the Argentine National Atomic Energy Commission (CNEA) is entirely under the control of the Argentine Navy, which has in the past shown itself to be the most bellicose of the nation's armed forces and is hungry for redemption since it was the prime mover for the Falklands invasion and suffered the greatest loss of prestige over the defeat. Thus, despite the scheduling of elections in October which will return the government to civilian rule, it is certain that the nuclear program will continue to operate according to military criteria unhindered by political constraints.

Recent British-Chilean diplomatic initiatives resulting in a closer relationship between these traditionally friendly nations has added momentum to the Argentine drive for nuclear weapons. The sale of British weapons to Chile (including bombers and a destroyer), British support for the Chilean claim in its territorial dispute with Argentina over the Beagle Channel islands, Chile's silence during the Falklands war, and recent discussions over the awarding of landing rights to British aircraft at the airstrip in Punta Arenas Chile, near Tierra del Fuego, have heightened Argentine concern over the negative status quo confronting them in the South Atlantic, and their need to redress it.

The Argentine population is broadly supportive of both another attempt to retake the ''Malvinas'' and the development of nuclear weapons. Both are widely perceived as the best means of reestablishing the country's badly tarnished national pride. The decision to develop nuclear weapons will therefore count with popular support, even if more rational elements of the nation's political leadership view the whole process as madness.

For these reasons, then, the chances of Argentina developing nuclear weapons in the near future is considerable, as is the chance that it will attempt to use their availability to oust the British from the Falklands. Given the irresponsible nature of the Argentine military, the probability that Argentina will soon be a member of the world's nuclear club poses a serious problem for the international community, and only a last-minute attempt at reopening diplomatic negotiations over the Falklands may avert this from becoming a dark reality in the near future.

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