This is a story of murder, sabotage, theft, international intrigues, and innuendo -- all the ingredients for a best-selling thriller but for one somber fact:
The final chapter could be nuclear war in the Middle East.
A shipment of uranium disappears on the high seas. A predawn attack guts two nuclear reactors. A scientist is found slain in his hotel room. Another, very much alive, pores over plans quietly obtained from an atomic plant in West Europe.
The story's plot is still unraveling. The scene so far:
* Israel can build the bomb. Indeed, some Western intelligence sources say the Israelis already have assembled at least five charges of the magnitude that ravaged Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan at the end of World War II.
* Libya and Iraq, flush with petrodollars and emotionally hostile to Israel, conceivably could join the club.
Now the French plan to ship a reactor and weapons-grade uranium to Iraq around the end of the year. "Fantastic," scoffs France of fears the deal will bring the Middle East one step closer to atomic holocaust.
Veteran Middle East analysts here take the idea more seriously."The day we know Israel and Iraq have the bomb, or Israel and Libya, I'm heading for Tahiti, " says one.
The day of Mideast nuclear holocaust is not around the corner. But there are disturbing indications it is creeping closer.
The scene shifts to the forbidding sands of the Negev Desert in southern Isrel, hub of the Jewish state's atomic program. You need three things to build the bomb: expertise (within the grasp of most top-grade nuclear scientists), equipment, and fuel.
Israel's reactor complex, off bounds even to the very most important of visiting VIPs, is said by Western intelligence reports to possess all three. The main snag for the Middle East's most technologically advanced state seemed to be in getting nuclear fuel. Most overseas fingers pointed at Isrel when a hefty parcel of uranium simply disappeared on an Atlantic voyage 12 years ago.
More important, in a region that thrives on brinkmanship, is the fact that Arab leaders seem to have not the slightest doubt their Israeli foe has atomic weapons.
Egypt's President Anwar Sadat, only months before he suddently flew to Jerusalem in 1977 in search of peace, charged that Israel had a batch of A-bombs ready for delivery. Iraq, fending off international pressure over its own nuclear program, argued in late July of this year that everone knew Israel already had the bomb.
Syrian Defense Minister Gen. Mustafa Talas, speaking to the Damascus newspaper Tichrin Aug. 1, went a step further. He served warning that "dozens" of nuclear bombs could not wipe out the Arab world, while "a mere three bombs could definitively" take care of Israel.
Ask an Israeli official for details on his country's nuclear bomb program, and you'll usually get a wry smile and the coy reply: "We will not be the first to introduce nuclear arms into the Middle East."
What, then, of the Arabs?
The Syrians' strong suit is bombast, not bombs. During the first Arab-Israeli war, in 1948, Damascus let it be known that a certain tinsmith in the city's bazaar was about to construct the Middle East's first atomic charge. Syria is not appreciably closer to that goal 32 years later, Western and Arab analysts agree.
Syrian Defense Minister Talas's stated assumption is that if Israel moves to "crush" Syria, the Soviets will dispatch nuclear assistance.
Yet at least two other Arab powers, Iraq and Libya, seem to be movning toward a nuclear weapons capability of their own.
The Iraqis, Western analysts say, are within reach of the requisite expertise. Now they need equipment and fuel. Money does not hurt, and Baghdad rakes in nearly $100 million petrodollars a day.
France, which happens to import a lot of Iraqi oil, is ready to help with Iraq's avowedly "peaceful" nuclear drive. So, reportedly, is Brazil, another oil customer.Israel is not, and intelligence sources suspect this may explain a violent campaign to derail Baghdad's nuclear program in the past 16 months.
By early last spring, a French nuclear facility in the southern city of Toulon was readying two research reactors for shipment to Iraq. In the early hours of April 6, however, both went boom in the night. The saboteurs got away. The French tried to talk Iraq into accepting reactors using low-grade, not weapons-grade, uranium. Iraq said no. France acquiesced, and began rebuilding the reactors.
By June of this year, the job was coming along nicely. the larger of the two reactors was -- indeed, is -- slated for delivery in late 1980 or early 1981, along with an initial batch of high-grade fuel.
This time saboteurs struck in Paris. An Egyptian-born visitor named Yahia el- Meshad was found murdered in his hotel room. He was no ordinary tourist, but a top scientist in Iraq's nuclear program.
The slaying, crowed Israeli radio, would set back Iraqi nuclear hopes by two years. Not so, say Western experts. Iraq has other scientists. France, under the nuclear deal with Baghdad, is training more.
Libya, for its part, is not yet in that league. But an Islamic ally, Pakistan, is. Intelligence sources say there can be little doubt the two countries now are joinging forces on a top-priority project -- building the bomb.
The uranium came easily. The former French African colony of Niger has acknowledged that, in 1978 alone, it sold 150 tons of partially refined ore to Pakistan. A further 300 tons went to Libya, which has a rudimentary nuclear energy program incapable of using such a quantity.
Libya, with petrodollars to burn, is assumed to have passed on the packet to Pakistan, along with cash to help shift the "Islamic bomb" project into high gear.
There remained, however, one rub. The uranium from Niger was in so-called "yellow cake" form. It would first have to be refined to extract its roughly 65 to 70 percent content of uranium ore -- no great feat. But even in "pure" mined form, the uranium would contain only about 7/10ths of 1 percent of bomb-worthy uranium 235. The separation is sophisticated business.
A Pakistani scientist named Abdul Qader Khan was in a position to help. Married to a Dutch woman, he told officials in the Netherlands in 1972 that he intended to take up Dutch nationality himelf. That sounded fine. The Dutch put him to work, with top security clearance, at a facility developing special-grade steel for a machine called the ultra-centrifuge.
The ultra-centrifuge, strangely enough, separates uranium into its nonexplosive and eaons-grade elements.
Dr. Khan wandered about the facility unhindered, notebook in hand, according to later reports from the Netherlands. Four years later he left for Pakistan, showing up before too long as director of Pakistan's major nuclear-research project. His cover still apparently intact, he blithely proceeded to order high-grade steel by mail from a Dutch firm, and secured added bits of technical know-how in correspondence with his Dutch research colleagues.
The bottom line, as Western analysts see it: Pakistan is well on its way to building a nuclear bomb. Libya's input presumably will merit a few free samples.
Iraq, outside fears notwithstanding, is still at least one tricky step away from a nuclear weapon. It needs fuel.
True, France soon will be shipping enriched uranium to Iraq for those reactors the French are rebuilding (unless further reactors get in the habit of exploding). But the French have made it clear the fuel must go into the reactor , not into a bomb. Reports from Paris als say the first fuel shipment, even if whisked from under the noses of French experts in Iraq, would not be sufficient for even a single explosive device.
Iraq also plans to buy uranium ore from Brazil. But there is no indication that the Iraqis have their equivalent of Dr. Khan waiting with the separation tools.
That leaves two options, if Iraq wants the bomb. First, the Iraqis could manage to divert small portions from France's successive shipments of enriched uranium. Second, there is the "plutonium option."
All forms of uranium, when used in a nuclear energy reactor, produce nuclear waste. All such waste includes the element of plutonium, a first-rate weaons material. The problem is that, to build a bomb, the volatile waste first must be reprocessed.
Again, there is no indication Iraq has reprocessing equipment. Can petromillions help? Israel presumably fears they can, but it is just too early to tell.
Both Iraq and Libya scoff at suggestions they plan anything more than "peaceful" application of nuclear energy. Both, unlike Israel, signed the international nuclear nonproliferation treaty.
Yet even a respected Arab newsletter, Beirut's Middle East Reporter, has its doubts, writing July 19 that the Arab nuclear push derives from "lost hope in ever winning a victory over Israel through conventional warfare."
Nor is Libyan and Iraqi rhetoric much comfort. Both states remain publicly committed to the destruction of Israel. Libya's eccentric strongman, Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi, is said to crave destruction of his longtime rival, President Sadat of Egypt, into the bargain, by striking at the Suez Canal.
Again, Iraq would seem to present the lesser danger. The Baghdad regime has shown a remarkable talent for compromise.
And in the wake of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, Baghdad has been edging toward the idea of Middle East negotiations in exchange for a powerful role in an alliance with more moderate Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Kuwait.
But add to this equation traditional inter- Arab rivalries -- Iraq, for instance, does not get along with Libya -- and you have a further potential danger. "If Iraq and Libya get the bomb," remarks a veteran political analyst here, "they might just as well use it against each other, as against Israel."
Outside fears of Israeli nuclear power, meanwhile, are ultimately rooted in a tale of Jewish resistance to more powerful Roman attackers hundreds of years ago. That was on the windy fortress plateau of Massada, pitched high above the Dead Sea. As the Romans closed in, Jewish zealots took their own lives rather than surrender.
True, any Israeli nuclear attack could loose full-scale atomic war in the Middle East. "But if the chips are down and if Israel feels its existence is at stake," a Western diplomat in Israel has commented privately, "that may not make much difference."
"Remember Massada," he added somberly. "Imagine a nuclear massada."