SENIOR Egyptian officials have expressed reservations over plans to destroy Iraq's high-tech weaponry, as demanded under United Nations conditions for ending the Gulf war. According to Western officials and senior government sources in Cairo, the reservations are expressed in relation to Egypt's attempts to have Israeli arms included in a widened debate over weapons of mass destruction.
The United Nations cease-fire resolution - approved by the UN Security Council last week and reluctantly accepted Saturday by Iraq - calls on Iraq to destroy its chemical and biological weapons, any nuclear capability, and most of its ballistic weapons.
In Cairo the cease-fire resolution has been described in the semi-official press as leaving Iraq "naked and crippled," unable to defend itself from neighboring states.
"We are conscious of the threat to the region of all weapons of mass destruction," says a senior Foreign Ministry source, adding that the government of President Hosni Mubarak seeks the elimination of not only chemical and biological weapons, but also nuclear. "We wish to see the entire region become a nuclear-free zone," he said.
By referring to nuclear weapons the official highlighted the overriding reason for Arab resistance to a total disarmament of Iraq: Israel. Israel is the only Middle Eastern country to possess nuclear weapons.
Egypt's participation in arms control initiatives dates from 1950, when several European states agreed to limit arms sales to the Middle East. Further efforts were made in the mid-1960s and, more recently, in the late 1980s with proposed United Nations resolutions for limiting weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.
According to some Western analysts, Egypt has previously based its initiatives on the linkage of Arab arms reductions with an Israeli withdrawal from occupied Arab lands and elimination of its nuclear weapons.
Egyptian officials, however, say that any linkage that exists is a natural one of cause and effect; until a negotiated peace is reached on the Arab-Israeli issue, the regional arms race will continue.
"All efforts have failed because of one reason: You cannot control arms without first solving the problems," the source said. "Success will come when we put it all in one context - resolution of the Israeli-Arab-Palestinian problem in a regional form which, in the end, will include arms control."
As long as Western nations exclude Israel from weapons-control discussions, Arab states can be expected to resist the elimination of chemical arms - "the poor man's nuclear bomb."
Two countries in the Middle East have used chemical weapons against an adversary - Iraq and Egypt. Egypt, which sent troops to support antiroyalist forces in the Yemeni civil war in the 1960s, used chemicals against Yemen's Saudi-backed monarchists.
In recent years, the region's development of chemical weapons has been joined by research and development of ballistic missiles. The missiles are believed to be able to carry chemical and nuclear warheads.
Egypt and Iraq cooperated in several high-tech military projects in the mid-1980s, among them the controversial Condor II ballistic missile. Under pressure from Washington, Egypt later withdrew from the project.
"The Western countries, by allowing Israel to have nuclear weapons, have given Israel the upper hand in the region. And it may work for now, but not in the future," says a senior Egyptian military official.
"All the countries of the region have chemical programs, and most of them are also trying to develop nuclear programs. And we have one country which we are sure has nuclear weapons, and that country is Israel."
He continued: "When we are speaking about control of weapons of mass destruction, it cannot be one or the other. It must be all of them - chemical, biological, and nuclear."