AN Iranian regime bent on acquiring nuclear arms and on exporting militant Muslim fundamentalism is the main source of instability in the Middle East.
Teheran is financing a growing nuclear-weapons program with billions of petrodollars from rapidly increasing oil production. It has the money to buy nuclear warheads from black marketeers in the former Soviet Union.
A nuclear-armed Iran would dominate the Gulf and dictate low levels of crude oil production to keep the price high. But a comprehensive nuclear test-ban treaty outlawing all nuclear tests, including those by nonsignatories, could block Teheran from testing any purchased warheads. The treaty could also prevent a regional nuclear war.
Saudi Arabia has purchased the Chinese CSS-2, 1,400-mile range missile for a reported $2 billion. (China did not sign the recent 22-nation pact that limits the spread of missiles capable of mass destruction.)
If such missiles are also sold by Beijing to Teheran and armed with Soviet-made nuclear artillery shells, or a 40-mile range Frog 7 misile warhead, Israel, in particular, would be in mortal danger.
The Israelis probably have a nuclear stockpile consisting of more than 50 devices. Reportedly, Israel successfully tested its bomb in cooperation with the South Africans. If its satellite launcher, known as the Shavit II, were adapted as a ballistic missile, it would have a range of 3,000 miles and could reach any part of Iran, as could Israel's advanced fighter-bombers.
Iran is a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but that's little solace. So is Iraq, and it conducted a clandestine nuclear-weapons program that eluded treaty inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
There is precedent for a global test-ban treaty that would effectively bind any nonsigning, nuclear-arming state - like Iran - against its will. The United Nations has repeatedly taken action against nonsignatories of the United Nations Charter, notably North Korea.
The treaty would enter into force only after being approved by the United Nations Security Council and agreed to by two-thirds of the member states. Its approval would amount to a declaration that there is no sovereign right to dump radioactive fallout from a regional nuclear war onto other members of the global village.
Alleged violations would be certified by the International Atomic Energy Agency based on seismic and other data received from the international community. Subsequent enforcement would be by a volunteering state authorized by the UN Security Council. In the case of Iran, the ayatollahs might fear a voluntary Israeli preemptive strike against their nuclear-weapons facilities authorized by the UN Security Council.
It is extremely unlikely that an untested bomb would be used aggressively. The former Soviet Union pressed for a "total and universal" test ban. A Soviet commentator said, "After all, even the most rabid militarists would be unlikely to use an untested nuclear weapon in a first strike."
But an Iran bent on having nuclear arms is not the only such threat to the world. Libya, Algeria, and Iraq have nuclear-weapons programs, as does North Korea. Other nuclear-capable nations are Argentina, Brazil, and South Africa.
India already has the essentials for many atomic bombs, and Pakistan probably has enough for a small number. India demonstrated an ability to explode a primitive nuclear device in its May 1974 test, aimed at impressing China. Given the enmity between India and Pakistan after three wars, a future war - over disputed Kashmir, for example - could escalate to the nuclear level.
Pakistan, in a statement to the UN General Assembly on Sept. 24, 1987, proposed a nuclear-free zone and a test-ban treaty in South Asia aimed at India. It said: "Pakistan is prepared to go further and subscribe to a comprehensive test ban in a global ... context."
Concerted pressure by Washington and Moscow for a global test-ban treaty, which would outlaw all of their own tests, could persuade most near-nuclear states, including India, to adhere to the pact.
They and any potentially nuclear adversaries would be bound, anyway. None could publicly go nuclear without posing a direct challenge to an international community, led by the United States, determined to prevent regional nuclear wars.
The Bush administration opposed a comprehensive test ban because it wanted to continue underground testing to insure the safety and reliability of American nuclear weapons. Most scientists now think the same purposes can be served by testing parts and by simulation.
The Russians say they are willing to agree to a comprehensive test ban and have declared a moratorium on testing, as have the French. And there is good evidence that China, too, is ready for a comprehensive test ban. The Clinton administration should waste no time in reversing the US stand.