The decision of the United States to withdraw from the International Atomic Energy Agency has wide ramifications for Middle East politics, the integrity of NATO, and for fragile efforts to curb nuclear weapons proliferation.
The Reagan administration's withdrawal from the IAEA last week in protest against that body's suspension of Israel reflects the durability of the US commitment to Israel. But to critics here it is also seen as revealing a lower-level commitment to anti-nuclear-proliferation programs.
For those European observers who are even more concerned about NATO and joint postures against the Soviet Union than about proliferation, the result was also disturbing. It brought to mind Charles de Gaulle's warning about what he saw as US unreliability and preoccupation with parochial domestic political groups. (Such observers sometimes equate US support for Israel with an effort by US politicians to court Jewish voters.)
Even if the US were to rethink its withdrawal, as on the gas pipeline question, European doubts about US seriousness are reenforced.
The dramatic and unexpected move by the US was a fulfillment of its earlier threat to quit the United Nations agency if Israel were suspended. It reaffirmed strong support for Israel at the critical moment following massacres of Palestinian refugees by Lebanese Christians in Israeli-occupied west Beirut.
The US disavowal of the IAEA is particularly serious because it has been precisely the persistent, much-proclaimed US demands for nuclear safeguards that promoted the system, and these, in the eyes of critical observers, have been sacrificed to the Reagan administration's electoral needs.
The international energy agency carries the important mandate of safeguarding weapons-grade nuclear material against possible diversion or misuse, a function that is dangerously jeopardized. Without US financial support covering some 26 percent of total costs, and especially without active US presence and support, the ability of the IAEA to field its corps of inspectors, with the requisite detectors and costly technical support, is questionable.
The drama unfolded amid the rococo splendors of Vienna's Hofburg Palace, triggered by convoluted parliamentary proceedings that, after an initial victory for the US and Israel, finally resulted in the rejection by the general conference of the Israeli delegation's credentials, equivalent to a de facto suspension from membership.
The specific issue was a resolution sponsored jointly by both Iran and Iraq, for once allied, to suspend Israel from the IAEA because of its attack on the Iraqi nuclear research facility at Tammuz near Baghdad in June 1981.
The rhetoric from both third-world and Western countries embraced general censure of Israel for repeated ''violations of the norms of international behavior.'' But the debate focused more narrowly on whether Israel's attack violated the agency's statutes on grounds that it attacked the entire international system of safeguards.