THE SIGNING of an agreement for nuclear cooperation between the United States and Egypt evokes a mixed reaction. The specific provisions of the agreement are, as Secretary Haig said, a "model" for such agreements under existing U.S. law and international arrangements. They authorize only the transfer of power reactors and low-enriched, non-weapons grade uranium. They require safeguards on all of Egypt's nuclear facilities, whether those facilities were provided by the United States or by others. They forbid reprocessing -- which yields plutonium -- in Egypt. And they go about as far as the terms of such an agreement can to ensure that no American supplies can be used directly or indirectly to make nuclear weapons. All this is to be admired.
Yet there are issues other than the technical ones raised by this new agreement. One is whether the Israeli raid on Iraq's reactor should not first have prompted a serious reconsideration of the wisdom of introducing nuclear technologies into the Middle East at all and the possible alternatives to doing so. The other is whether the weaknesses in the international safeguards system revealed in the wake of the raid, and pointed out by President Reagan at his recent press conference, would not have made this the ideal time to postpone any further nuclear transfers, at least until the loopholes could have been closed and the system's many vulnerabilitis corrected.
What accounts for the timing of the announcment? The agreement has been in various stages of negotiation for years and could certainly have been postponed for a while longer. In fact, the raid was seen by some as a reason not to postpone the signing. Israel's attack, this argument went, embarrassed President Sadat, and the United States should do nothing further to exacerbate that condition. A strong push for the agreement also came from those in the State Department concerned with nuclear trade policies who fear that, by revealing its weaknesses, the raid may have dealt a fatal blow to the international safeguards system. They evidently argued that the United States should quickly push ahead with the Egyptian agreement to dmonstrate confidence in the system.
We can see some logic to the anxiety about further weakening Anwar Sadat's position in the Arab world. But the desire to show that the flawed and misnamed safeguards work is wholly without merit. They didn't work. They don't work. And all the American and international nuclear bureaucracy's defensive, self-justifying efforts to demonstrate otherwise are junk. They -- the bureaucracies involved in the transfer of this technology and material, along with the people who wish to sell and the countries that wish to buy -- are putting forward a deceptive version of reality. The American government's interest lies in exploring the weaknesss in the system that were so dramatically brought to world attention by the Israeli raid -- not in trying to wish them away.