NUCLEAR technology is dangerously spreading to unstable countries and to regions of tension. Argentina, as one of the most active of several emerging nuclear-supplier countries in the world today, has an aggressive nuclear-export policy toward the Middle East and other areas of real or potential conflict. Now that the ultranationalist Peronist Party won the May 15 presidential election, it may try to fulfill its pledge to increase nuclear exports to the third world sharply and under less stringent conditions. If it does so, Argentina's nuclear-export policy could threaten world peace. Unlike most traditional nuclear suppliers, Argentina has not signed the 1968 Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty (NPT), and it does not belong to any group of countries that controls exports of sensitive nuclear items. Argentina explicitly rejects such treaties and associations as discriminating against developing countries.
Although Argentina has pledged since 1985 to exercise voluntary self-control on sensitive nuclear exports, it champions nuclear development in the third world. It has been focusing much of its export activities on the Middle East.
Earlier this year, Argentina exported a research reactor to Algeria - its first to the Middle East. Although small, it seems to have paved the way for future nuclear-related exports from Buenos Aires to countries in the region such as Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and, most troubling, Iran, with which Argentina has had long-standing nuclear relations. Algeria has already expressed interest in a much larger power plant, which was specifically designed by Argentina for use in the third world. This reactor produces twice as much atomic bomb-grade plutonium as does the typical commercial reactor.
Why does Argentina pursue such an aggressive nuclear-export policy? Profit clearly is one motive: Argentina has a $60 billion foreign debt, and its economic austerity has cut into the energy sector, causing Buenos Aires to experience its worst power shortages since World War II. Some of Argentina's exports may also be designed for long-term geopolitical gain - to fill a perceived void that it sees being created by the loss of United States influence in the Middle East and elsewhere. Also, the feeling of national pride that goes along with its ability to compete with the most advanced industrialized nations in the realm of high-technology exports cannot be underestimated.
For these reasons, sensitizing Argentina to the implications of its nuclear-export policy may prove to be a difficult task. Yet, unless something is done, it is likely that the incoming Peronists will increase Argentina's exports of sensitive nuclear technology and equipment to the third world.
The greatest risk of the use of atomic weapons comes not from the United States or the Soviet Union, but from other areas - such as the Middle East - where regional nuclear-arms races could provoke war and where nuclear terrorism could become a devastating reality.
So far, Washington has taken a two-track approach to the problem. On the one hand, the US ambassador to Argentina has reportedly been ``lobbying'' Carlos Sa'ul Menem, the Peronist leader and President-elect, to accept international regulations on Argentina's own nuclear facilities. For the other part, Ambassador at Large Richard T. Kennedy has visited Argentina several times in the last few years, trying to improve nuclear ties with Argentina. Certainly he hopes we can learn more about its nuclear-export policy.
While these moves are no doubt well intentioned, they may not be very effective and could cause backlashes. And with the Peronists taking power in only a few months, the United States has little time to change its current tack.
Rather than focusing its efforts to reduce irresponsible nuclear exports on a unilateral policy - an approach that could easily be exploited by local anti-US populists and demagogues - Washington should try to enlist the aid of its European allies, especially Italy and Spain. The Argentines have a strong cultural affinity and close economic ties with them and are more willing to heed their concerns on this important issue. Debt relief could also help alleviate the incentive for Argentina to have such an aggressive export policy.
In the final analysis, such external efforts can, at best, only reduce the incentives for Argentina to have such a full-speed-ahead nuclear-export policy: Any significant moves toward moderation must come from within.
Therefore, the US should also intensify its efforts to deter countries from importing sensitive nuclear technology or equipment without international oversight. A joint US-Soviet nonproliferation policy, backed by strong sanctions, could go a long way toward this goal, since together they have influence in most of the potential nuclear recipient countries, even in the Middle East. Still, the situation looks bleak; revolutionary countries, such as Iran, will probably not be swayed.
As pax Americana declines, and US-Soviet tensions are reduced, other countries - such as Argentina - will have an increasingly large role to play in the world. We can only hope that with this increased sense of power and importance comes greater responsibility.