Alarmed over the growing spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons to Third World nations such as Iraq and Libya, officials from the United States and West Germany are considering the use of the agency that kept Western technology from the Soviet military to block the proliferation, Bush administration officials and Western diplomats reported.
"Proliferation is getting out of hand," said a U.S. official who deals with the issue. "It has increased dramatically since Iraq used the weapons with perceived effectiveness" in its war with Iran.
The two allies also are weighing an invitation to Moscow, which even during the height of the Cold War opposed the spread of nuclear weapons, to join in the nonproliferation efforts, the sources said.
"After all," a U.S. official said, "if the Soviets can have an ambassador accredited to NATO, there is no reason for not having a Soviet observer accredited to Cocom," the 17-nation Coordinating Committee for Multinational Export Controls that has spent the more than four decades of the Cold War trying to keep Western technology from the Soviet military.
The discussions reflect an increased concern in Washington, Bonn and other Western capitals that the danger of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons being used in Third World conflicts now poses a greater threat than nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the Western alliance.
Iraq President Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons in his country's war with Iran and has threatened to unleash them against Israel.
India and Pakistan, on the brink of war over Kashmir in the spring, are both believed by Western intelligence agencies to have nuclear weapons capability, as are Israel and South Africa.
Iraq also has a nuclear program that some intelligence sources believe is aimed at building a bomb.
And Libya's Moammar Gadhafi has been accused by the Bush administration of building a chemical weapons plant.
"The sense of urgency is felt by all," said a Western diplomat.
"The driving forces are the Americans and the Germans, who have realized that all over the planet countries are building up what we are trying to get rid of through arms control and arms reduction. This is not to the benefit of those countries and not to our benefit."
The United States and West Germany have kept their discussions low-key, fearing that they would be seen among less-developed nations as an attempt by the haves of the world to keep technology away from the have-nots, officials said.
But the strongest expressions have come from West German officials, who continually brought up the question at Cocom meetings this spring, administration sources said. A Western diplomat said it was also discussed by U.S. and German officials on the fringes of the economic summit in Houston three weeks ago, but probably not by President Bush or West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
"As the strategic threat from the East shrinks, regional conflicts and proliferation of dangerous technologies in developing countries pose a great challenge," Joachim Johnke, West German deputy assistant secretary for foreign trade, told a Washington meeting on strategic export controls in March.
"Controlling drugs, lethal chemicals and equipment and materials used to produce them has to be dealt with more intensely. We should use the same framework that we have used to control East-West trade for controlling dangerous exports to Third World countries," Johnke said.
Although there are existing systems designed to control the spread of those technologies, U.S. and Western diplomatic sources said they have been largely ineffective in stopping Third World countries from gaining technology, chemicals, parts and machinery that can be used to construct atomic bombs and chemical and biological weapons as well as the intercontinental ballistic missiles needed to deliver them.
"Right now there is a hodgepodge of different structures that deal with proliferation," said Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), who has taken an interest in the issue.
One U.S. official said it would be early fall before the administration decides whether to try to expand Cocom or to form a new organization. While there has been discussion on the question within pockets of the administration, U.S. officials stressed that it has not been subject to interagency debates.