BOSTON — OVER the past week the Bush administration has cited the existence of a nuclear weapon potential in Iraq as a reason why the United Nations should authorize military action against Iraq and, by implication, as a future reason for using that option. Is Iraq's nuclear potential a valid reason for the United States to go to war against Iraq?
By general agreement among experts Iraq might, in theory, be able to put together a single, primitive nuclear device within a year. Five years is considered a more reasonable estimate of when Iraq could possess significant nuclear weaponry.
Iraq has a nuclear program and some nuclear materials. The program is inspected regularly by the International Atomic Energy Agency. This agency, the IAEA, inspected the Iraq program in April and reported no violations. After an on-site inspection last week, the agency again gave Iraq a clean bill of health.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater contested the report, saying on Nov. 28 that the agency's inspectors had been misled. ``They see only what Iraq wants them to see.... We disagree quite strenuously.''
US Secretary of Defense, Richard Cheney, argued Nov. 5 that President Saddam Hussein of Iraq ``is closer today than he was a few months ago'' to being able to produce nuclear weapons. Brent Scowcroft, National Security Assistant to the President, said the same day that ``building even one would make a significant difference for troops fighting in the region.''
But neither Mr. Cheney nor Mr. Scowcroft nor Mr. Fitzwater gave any specific evidence that the Iraqi President is actually building ``even one.'' Nor is there any evidence that he is in fact working on nuclear weapons at the moment. He was believed to be doing so earlier. On June 7, 1981, Israeli bombers destroyed a nuclear reactor near Baghdad, alleging it was capable of producing weapons-grade nuclear material.
So the Iraqi ``nuclear threat'' consists of a possible capability of producing a single weapon within a year and producing a significant arsenal within five years. But there is no suggestion that Saddam Hussein has an actual nuclear device today that could make a difference in the present Middle East crisis.
Even if he did have one, or even several usable nuclear weapons today, would he be tempted to use one?
The US has the world's largest arsenal of nuclear weapons at 12,000 warheads. (The Soviets have 10,000.) Britain and France have smaller, but substantial nuclear arsenals. It would be military folly for Iraq to use a nuclear device against such odds. It would be inviting its own obliteration.
The main difference that a nuclear weapon in the hands of Saddam Hussein would make would be to improve his ability to deter Israel from using nuclear weapons. Israel today is the only nuclear power in the Middle East. It has a stockpile estimated at between 100 and 200 warheads, with ample vehicles for delivering a warhead to any target in the Middle East.
Saddam Hussein already has a deterrent in his stockpile of chemical weapons. He has used them against his own Kurds and against the Iranians. The threat of using a chemical weapon against densely populated Tel Aviv is a deterrent. Saddam Hussein hardly needs a nuclear weapon at all. However, a nuclear weapon would improve his deterrent strength against Israel. He may well be reaching for such an improved deterrent.
The thing the US military command has to worry about is not the nuclear weapon Saddam Hussein may have one to five years from now, but the chemical weapon he has today. It can serve his purposes in the present situation as well as a nuclear weapon by deterring others from using nuclear weapons, and as a device for turning the present crisis into another Arab-Israeli war. It would be the sixth Arab-Israeli war, and it would be extremely difficult for any Arab country to fail to join up on Iraq's side.