FOR MORE than a year, Iraq has been without weapons inspectors. Last week the Pentagon reported that Saddam Hussein is taking advantage of this absence to build up his war machine, possibly including chemical or biological weapons. If Iraq develops a weapon that can, say, devastate Tel Aviv, the balance of power in the region will be dangerously altered.

America and Britain, supported for a change by France, are trying to get Russia to sign on to a new Security Council resolution that would require Iraq to accept the return of weapons inspectors; if Russia agrees, China may choose to go along rather than be isolated. In order to get the Russians on board, the Western powers may be tempted to make the new inspection team look different from the old one. Up to a point, some changes are acceptable: So what if the new team has a different name? Some of the possible substantive changes, on the other hand, would undermine the inspections regime. The Clinton administration needs to remain firm in opposing them.

First, the administration must persist in rejecting a Russian demand that sanctions on Iraq be lifted the moment inspectors are let back in. Instead, Iraq must be required to submit to several months of inspections before it gets its payoff, and the Security Council should provide for the automatic reimposition of sanctions if Iraq's cooperation wavers.

Second, the administration must resist ideas that would dilute the inspection team's effectiveness, either by depriving it of experienced staff or by forcing it to report to the United Nations bureaucracy rather than directly to the Security Council. Finally, the administration needs to be clear that, if sanctions are eventually lifted, Iraq should not be allowed to spend its oil revenues on armaments or on supposedly civilian goods that might be used to make weapons.

Even if the administration gets its way on all three questions, it will face an uphill task in ensuring that the new inspections regime is meaningful. The choice of the chief inspector will be important: It must be somebody as determined to find weapons as the Iraqis are to conceal them. Moreover, it will take some fierce diplomacy to get the inspectors into Iraq, even if the Security Council gives them a mandate. Saddam Hussein probably will assume that if he rejects inspections, the alternative is more sanctions that hurt ordinary Iraqis without hurting his power base. He must be made to abandon this assumption. The alternative to inspections that he needs to hear about is renewed international support for his removal.