PRESIDENT Bush is prepared to wage war in the Persian Gulf, in part to destroy Iraq's emerging nuclear capability. Such a plan, though, could cost tens of thousands of American lives, while only dealing a setback to Iraq's nuclear ambitions, as the Israeli raid on the Osiraq reactor did in 1981. Moreover, Iraq poses little nuclear threat in the coming months. We must stop Saddam Hussein, but we have time to do so.
The immediate threat is based on Iraq's possession of 27 pounds of enriched uranium, purchased from the French back in the 1970s. With this material, assuming the Iraqis have all the other necessary components (which is not at all certain), Baghdad could fashion a single, crude, untested nuclear bomb, heavy enough to require a truck to deliver it.
That 27 pounds of uranium undergoes inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency every six months. The most recent inspection indicated that no diversion of the material from peaceful to military purposes had taken place. All of this makes an Iraqi nuclear surprise attack unlikely.
Administration officials have speculated that Iraq could have additional supplies of enriched uranium. There is no known evidence to support such a scenario. If the administration does have such evidence, it should let the world know immediately - the better to strengthen the alliance against Saddam.
But in the longer run, over the next five to 10 years, Iraq's nuclear threat is very real indeed. Saddam is rapidly building a high-speed gas centrifuge plant to enrich uranium. When this facility has operated for a few years, Iraq will have enough weapons-grade uranium to start assembling a nuclear arsenal.
The way to stop Saddam is to stop the people supplying him. Iraq has taken advantage of weak export controls that are poorly enforced. Baghdad now has a sophisticated smuggling network operating throughout the Western world.
The United States's record is far from perfect, but European countries, especially Germany, are the biggest offenders in supplying nuclear arms technology.
There is a shamefully long list of German companies under investigation for contributing to Iraq's nuclear, missile, chemical, and biological weapons programs. According to the German economics minister, at least three German companies are known to have assisted Baghdad's efforts to build a centrifuge plant.
Export Union of Duesseldorf is under investigation for selling 50 tons of a specialized steel to Baghdad, material necessary for constructing centrifuges. Another firm, H&H Metalform, has also reportedly sold centrifuge technology to the Iraqis and is linked with a British company, Technology Development Group, that may have established an extensive Iraqi arms network operating throughout Europe.
IRAQ was not the first country to take advantage of loopholes in German export laws. German firms have also contributed critically useful equipment, technology, blueprints, and expertise to nuclear weapons programs in other countries, such as Pakistan, India, Brazil, Argentina, and South Africa. Some of these countries have then in turn provided nuclear assistance to Iraq.
Other countries have a poor record on controlling their exports as well. France has sold nuclear reactors and other facilities to countries like Pakistan and India, which have not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Several Swiss firms are under investigation for assisting Iraq's centrifuge plant. Two British firms, Euromac and Atlas Equipment, have been accused of attempting to help Iraq smuggle triggers for nuclear weapons.
As a result of all of this nuclear wheeling and dealing, India, Pakistan, South Africa, and Israel have all become nuclear weapons states. Iraq and others will join them soon if we don't take urgent action today.
We need to tighten our own export controls, but we must also reach foreign suppliers directly. At the end of the last Congress, I introduced legislation to punish foreign companies that contribute to nuclear proliferation. I will reintroduce this bill in January.
Under this legislation, any foreign company that assists the spread of nuclear weapons will have its goods barred from entering the US. Firms will have to weigh sweet deals with Iraq or Pakistan against losing business with the US, the world's richest single market. Under these circumstances, many suppliers, especially multinational corporations, might more carefully consider their actions.
There is precedent for legislation of this kind. The Multilateral Export Control Enhancement Act, passed in 1988 after Toshiba sold sensitive technology to the Soviet Union, bars imports from foreign companies that violate the NATO restrictions on trade with the Soviet bloc. Clearly, Iraq is a greater threat to our national security than the now-defunct Warsaw Pact; we should reorient our trade policies to reflect this.
This fall, Congress imposed sanctions on foreign companies that assist the spread of chemical and biological weapons. But the president did not sign the legislation. He said the sanctions, because they were mandatory for one year, were too inflexible. But after many years of doing little or nothing while Iraq, Libya, and other countries acquired weapons of mass destruction, it's time the US acted inflexible to send a different message.
In any case, if the president is willing to wage war because Iraq might possibly have one crude nuclear bomb, how can he oppose a few targeted trade sanctions to prevent Baghdad from stockpiling an arsenal?
The choice is simple. We either stand up to the ``proliferation profiteers'' now or face Saddam and his terrorist cohorts later when they are brandishing the ultimate weapon.