There are clear indications that Iraq is determined to have the bomb. The only question is one of time.

The conventional wisdom in Washington and Jerusalem has been that the time was not ripe to deal with the danger posed by weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. Given Saddam Hussein's bellicosity and the stalled Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, the promotion of diplomatic initiatives related to the nuclear issue seems a luxury.

This is a shortsighted attitude. The embryonic balance of terror that already exists -- based on Israel's nuclear and chemical weapons capabilities and Arab, particularly Iraqi, chemical weapons -- is very fragile. It would be further strained by any attempt by an Arab state to move from a "poor man's bomb" to the real thing. No Israeli government would view such an attempt with equanimity.

The United States has two fundamental security concerns in the Middle East: ensuring the flow of oil and preventing the use of nuclear weapons. The invasion of Kuwait has obviously shifted attention to the former. But for the long term, the matter of nuclear weapons is even more worrisome.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak proposed recently that the Middle East as a region be made free of all weapons of mass destruction. It was a laudable response to the dangers, but ran squarely into Israel's unwillingness to give up its nuclear capability under current conditions and the Arab insistence on having a chemical deterrent as long as Israel retains a nuclear monopoly.

What, then, is to be done about these risks? The answer would seem to lie in taking small but significant steps -- a series of confidence-building measures whose eventual goal is a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction.

While the Bush administration and Congress have expressed concern about the proliferation of unconventional weapons and advanced delivery systems, their efforts have focused on a chemical weapons ban and on minimizing the spread of ballistic missiles. These are worthy goals, but the heart of the matter is Israel's unacknowledged nuclear capability.

During two recent trips to the Middle East, we had the opportunity to discuss the danger of nuclear weapons with informed individuals inside and outside the Israeli and Egyptian governments. Although there was a range of opinion as to the immediacy of the nuclear risk, there was also widespread agreement on the need for serious consideration of interim confidence-building measures in the nuclear area.

On the Israeli side, we suggest that a process include an understanding that Israel's nuclear capability remain in the basement, for potential use only as a last resort in situations of supreme national emergency. There are strong indications that this concept of the role of its nuclear capability has been accepted by all of Israel's senior decision-makers, past and present. However, given the complete lack of serious discourse in Israel about its nuclear capabilities and doctrine, and the Arab fear that the role of this capability, particularly under a Likud government, is no longer just "last resort deterrence" but rather the ultimate guarantee of the invulnerability of a "Greater Israel," such an understanding may be both ambiguous and fragile and needs to be clarified and reinforced.

Similar remarks apply to three other elements of our proposed nuclear bargain: no testing of nuclear weapons, no deployment and no transfer of relevant technology to other countries. The important new element would be a ban on further production of nuclear weapons materials; this would involve an unpublicized but verifiable shutdown of elements of the Dimona nuclear complex in Israel.

For their part, the Arab states and Iran would refrain from actions that would raise legitimate doubts about the sincerity of their commitment under the Non-Proliferation Treaty not to acquire nuclear weapons. At the moment, of course, the major concern in this regard is Iraq. That country must realize the enormous risks of attempting to go nuclear. Attempts to minimize nuclear risks should focus initially on Israel and Iraq. However, Egypt, given its commitment to the peace process and the Non-Proliferation Treaty, as well as its traditional leadership role in the Arab world, should also be a key player in this process.

Obviously, progress toward a political settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian problem would create an atmosphere more conducive to fruitful negotiations on limitations on both unconventional and conventional arms control in the Middle East. But this is a two-way street: serious discussion of nuclear risks and the pursuit of concomitant confidence-building measures would serve to reinforce the reality that rationality lies in making compromises for peace. Especially given the Soviet Union's preoccupation with its internal problems, the key actor in facilitating such a process -- both with regard to being an honest broker and also in providing access to verification data acquired by its national technical means -- can only be the United States.

What we are advocating is the beginning of a confidence-building process whose ultimate aim is the establishment of a true nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. Based on recent conversations in the area, we believe that most Arab states and Israel recognize that the old rhetoric with regard to nuclear weapons is inadequate to deal with the present dangers, and they are willing to explore interim nuclear confidence-building initiatives. The political costs involved in such a delicate undertaking may be high, but so are the risks of standing still.

Avner Cohen, who is on the faculty at Tel Aviv University, is currently a visiting scholar at MIT, where Marvin Miller is a senior research scientist.