Washington — While the signing of an arms reduction pact may be a major step forward for Europe and the superpowers, the intermediate-range nuclear missiles (INF) agreement itself has only a modest effect on a very serious nuclear weapons issue: proliferation of nuclear technology in the developing world. Indeed, some experts fear the intense emphasis on INF and other strategic weapons is actually distracting attention from the spread of nuclear weapons technology in chronically unstable third-world areas - where nuclear weapons are potentially more dangerous than in the relatively stable European environment.
``The weapons under discussion in the INF negotiations were never likely to be used, while in the rest of the world, countries are making nuclear weapons which may really be used. We may be watching the wrong weapons,'' says Gary Milhollin, a former nuclear proliferation consultant to the United States Defense Department.
Indeed, in much of the proliferation-prone third world, ``It seems they simply haven't thought about INF much,'' says a nuclear proliferation expert who is intimately familiar with the thinking of high-level Indian and Pakistani officials. These two states, along with Argentina, Brazil, Israel, and South Africa, are among the so-called threshold nations - those most likely to obtain their own nuclear weapons capability.
Any impact of an INF treaty on the third world will be indirect, slow, and heavily dependent on the quality of post-INF superpower relations. Nevertheless, some side effects are possible.
India and other potential third-world nuclear states have always held superpower progress toward nuclear disarmament as a condition for them to be serious about limiting their own nuclear capabilities, including signing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. (These countries have long doubted that the superpowers would ever actually reduce their arsenals.)
Since the INF treaty limits and destroys nuclear weapons delivery systems, it will be more difficult to sustain this reasoning in the face of concerted pressure to accept international nonproliferation agreements and close inspection.
In most threshold states, politically powerful cliques exist which favor aggressive nuclear weapons development. In some cases, these cliques are able to box in leaders who would prefer to remain nonnuclear.
While past superpower inaction on nuclear disarmament has enhanced the persuasiveness of these ``hawks,'' the upcoming INF agreement gives ammunition to those who want caution.
Some experts believe Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi is under such political pressures, and would prefer greater moderation in India's nuclear policies.
An INF agreement will give nations concerned about regional proliferation a ``handle'' to utilize when cajoling governments to halt efforts to obtain nuclear status. It creates a credible basis for US - or Soviet - initiatives with a number of countries now on the nuclear threshold.
Nonproliferation is one of the few issues on which Moscow and Washington have usually united, even during periods of strained relations. Effective cooperation on nonproliferation would be a natural consequence of ongoing mutual nuclear force reductions.
A major fear about third-world nuclear proliferation has been the possibility that a regional conflict would escalate to a nuclear exchange, and then drag in the superpowers.
Some scenarios involving a serious threat to Israel's existence, for instance, portray that country threatening use of its putative nuclear arsenal. Superpower conflict would loom should the Soviets take action to preempt such a move and the US come to Israel's assistance.
But if the great powers reduce their nuclear arsenals and open communications, the likelihood of such events getting out of hand decreases.
Should a genuine reduction of superpower tension be the ultimate result of INF and follow-on treaties, then the possibility of reducing the intensity of many third-world regional conflicts would be greater. Under conditions such as these, the likelihood of enforcing a regime against nuclear weapons proliferation would be significantly enhanced.
The writer was a government official for two decades before becoming a consultant on international affairs.