Iran and the Bomb

DESPITE needed efforts beginning in New York this week to create a permanent nonproliferation treaty, the available nuclear technology on the market these days outstrips most safeguards. If a nation wants a bomb badly enough, it can get one. Saddam Hussein, for example, prior to the invasion of Kuwait, was part of the NPT regime -- and allowed inspections. Yet he was able to develop an Iraqi program on the side.

Currently, the US is loudly raising the question about Iran's desire for a bomb. Iran certainly wants a nuclear option, like its neighbors Pakistan and India, and its regional neighbor Israel. This presumed fact, along with the fact that Iran has enough uranium reserves to create its own autonomous program, is disturbing. The question is not only what to do -- but whether the US strategy to make a case of Iran undercuts long-term diplomatic goals.

The US effort to block nuclear technology to Iran, even as Washington is developing a program for North Korea, may well begin to make the US look two-faced about a treaty it is supposed to take the lead on. Iran is a signatory to the NPT and allows international inspections. It may want, and even have part of, a bomb, but, unlike other favored states, it is playing by the ''rules.'' Moreover, according to NPT rules, the US and other nations are bound to help member states develop a program.

By not getting agreement from other nations on containing Iran, the US appears weak, since it is making the issue public in such a single-minded way. This week China flouted the US by agreeing to sell two large 300-megawatt nuclear reactors to Iran -- in addition to the ongoing help China gives Iran on mining its own natural uranium reserves. China's statement comes on the heels of a Russian agreement to sell Iran four reactors -- despite a trip by US Defense Secretary William Perry to Moscow.

By ''losing'' on its diplomatic initiative, the US may well appear further weakened as a world leader on this sensitive question.

The post-cold-war world is full of new nuclear- and chemical-weapons dangers that have not been adequately focused on, and which treaties like the NPT -- important as they are -- do not deal with. Iran, for example, already has an old-fashioned uranium processor sold to it by China -- technology available in open textbooks.

We share the US concern on Iran. The strategy is questionable.

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