Radioactive Politics

REPUBLICANS surely have the right to question President Clinton's often inchoate foreign policy. But as the issue of Russia's assistance to Iran's nuclear program comes front and center, GOP leaders need some sober second thoughts before launching a loud hue and cry. The potential for Iranian weapons-grade plutonium, damaged US-Russian relations, instability in the Near and Middle East (the list could go on) is considerable. These are grave issues - too serious to be toyed with for immediate political gain by attacking a weakened president.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia have said this week they will ``cut off all aid to Russia'' if that country proceeds in helping Iran build a light-water reactor at a site near Bushehr, on the Persian Gulf. Experts say that the reactor will be capable of making weapons-grade plutonium - though international inspections found no evidence that Tehran has anything like a reprocessing plant as, for example, the North Koreans have.

The point that needs making on Capitol Hill, in the midst of a headlong domestic legislative ``revolution,'' is that dealing with potential weapons of mass destruction in world hot spots requires a deeply bipartisan approach. It is not clear the GOP has a plan and a strategy commensurate with its proposed actions to cut aid to Russia. Right or wrong, this is not comparable to congressional attempts during the Bush years to block most-favored-nation trading status with China over human rights. Nuclear weapons in the post-cold-war period are a different story.

Still, the question of the lack of foreign-policy leadership from the White House remains central. It isn't clear how US-Russian policy toward Iran is being framed. Policy is farmed out all across the administration; Secretary of State Warren Christopher seems out of the picture, which doesn't help create a coherent policy.

The Russians were aiding Iran's program before the $4 billion US nuclear agreement with North Korea last summer. But that deal does give Moscow some diplomatic leverage in making its case to help Iran; Iran is at least a member in compliance of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty regime.

Dealing with nuclear proliferation should be, ideally, nonpartisan. Congress can withhold aid; but it must ask how effective withholding minimal aid is. Is it a strategy or a reaction?

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