The Ripple Effect: Saddam And South Asian Nukes

The nuclear race between India and Pakistan poses a new strategic dilemma. If a country is entitled to nuclear weapons because a neighbor has them - in this case, India because of China, and Pakistan because of India - there is no end to it.

Possession can also leapfrog. When Pakistan exploded its devices, the public went wild over the "Islamic bomb," a term that Pakistan's leaders did not use because of its ominous implications. In the super-charged competition with an Indian government led by anti-Muslim, extremist Hindus, Islamism seems an almost inevitable response. That spreads the field of tension across the Middle East. Pakistan was founded as a Muslim country but has remained aloof from the Islamic activism so prominent in Arab rhetoric. Now, however, it may be importuned to help offset Israel's nuclear supremacy in the region. It is a cloud no bigger than a man's hand, but there are interim stages and plenty of Arab money to buy a piece of Pakistan's action, be it scientific skill, nuclear missile materials, or missile technology.

This is mostly conjecture but is already felt in the main Western effort at arms control in the Middle East, the disarmament of Iraq.

Nuclear escalation in South Asia makes Iraq seem a much smaller danger.

After Desert Storm in 1991, the United Nations set out to destroy Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. The Security Council created a UN Special Commission, UNSCOM, with unprecedented powers to seek out and eliminate materials and industrial capacity for chemical and biological weapons as well as long-range missiles. The International Atomic Energy Agency has the same mandate in the nuclear field.

Until these two groups certify that their work is completed, Iraq is to remain under the strictest sanctions ever imposed.

For seven years, Iraq has played cat and mouse with both agencies. A very great deal has been uncovered and it is felt that Iraq's nuclear capability is zero; but President Saddam Hussein has concealed, denied, and disputed evidence at every turn and could - some say would - re-arm the moment he can freely sell Iraq's huge oil deposits. UNSCOM has found no smoking gun and the Security Council, showing signs of enforcement fatigue, is toying with a switch to much lighter monitoring.

Saddam has used the abject misery of the Iraqi people to denounce sanctions as genocide. (No matter that he could have ended them by simply telling the full story of his arms program.)

Expressing sympathy for the Iraqis, not unmindful of billions in debts which Iraq owes and of billions in future business that will help their own creaking economies, Russia and France have long urged an end to sanctions. China and Brazil and others on the Council have joined in. Remarkable is the unanimous Arab support, moved by the suffering of the Iraqi people but clearly benefitting Saddam, the invader of Kuwait.

Saddam, seeing the trend, says sanctions must end by October - or else. He could then simply close down inspections. When he did that last fall, the United States rushed to prepare for a massive military strike. It has since reaffirmed a hard line, but its position, too, is changing. The carrier groups and the tens of thousands of soldiers have mostly quietly been withdrawn from the gulf. The administration does not want another crisis before November's elections. The US is not expected to go to war against a defiant Saddam Hussein.

UNSCOM feels the pressure to go along. The Security Council has grown tired of this Cassandra involving it in endless argument while other and now even bigger emergencies crowd its calendar. Once the sole arbiter of its search and destroy tactics, it is now reined in by Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who prefers to avoid confrontation. Russia and France will shortly attach "political advisers" to UNSCOM headquarters staff, which means that UNSCOM's operational intelligence from US, British, and other sources is likely to dry up.

As UNSCOM languishes or goes out of business, Saddam Hussein, emerging from his cage, will be free to make his contribution to the turmoil that India and Pakistan have stirred up in that part of the world.

* Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.

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