SO FRANCE is to sell Iraq the enriched uranium that will help the Iraqis, whose determination is not open to doubt, to build a nuclear bomb. The French offered a substitute low-enrichment fuel for a research reactor under construction outside Baghdad, but the Iraqis demanded the real thing and Paris gave in. It is what the world has come to expect from the French: a token bow to statesmanship and the serious pursuit of profit. In this case the Iraqis are evidently making it worth France's while, in oil supplies, arms sales and industrial projects, to undermine international efforts to limit the spread of nuclear weapons. France may see as well a chance to associate itself with the Arab country that is emerging as the region's dominant power.

That's the chilling part. Most Westerners, especially Americans, have paid scant attention to Iraq, perhaps the most hard-line of the Arab countries on Mideast issues. Until a few years ago it kept pretty much to itself, spewing viciousness against the United States and Israel and feuding with its neighbors. Meanwhile, its oil revenues, and reserves, combined with the arms it was acquiring from the Soviet Union, were making it into a power to contend with. Opposition to Camp David gave Baghdad a cause around which to try to build an Arab consensus. The revolution in Iran and the revealed vulnerabilities of Saudi Arabia removed the "two pillars" of American security policy in the Persian Gulf, leaving Iraq to fill the local vacuum. Its evident ambitions are not only to unite the Arabs but also to lead the Third World and to oust all remnants of great-power influence from the Gulf.

This is the country that, claiming to be answering the "Arab nation's" need to counter a presumed Israeli nuclear capability, is evidently working up a bomb of its own.

That Iraq's goals are extravagant and, from an American perspective, irresponsible and hostile does not mean that the country can be ignored. Clearly, the best course of the United States is to go calmly about its Mideast/Gulf affairs, demonstrating as best it can the advantages of association with the United States. In doing this, however, the United States surely has a right to expect its ostensible allies not to go to the length of equipping the region's prime spoiler with a nuclear capability. If the Europeans can make a case for doing certain sorts of business with a regime like Iraq's, they can make no legitimate case for helping it build a bomb.