France said today that the enriched uranium it is delivering to Iraq is strictly limited to the needs of the nuclear research reactor the French have sold to the Iraqis.
French sources said privately that this was meant to suggest that if ever Iraq tried to divert the weapons-grade materials it gets from France, the French would immediately terminate the deal with the Baghdad government, which is officially at war with Israel.
The French government's statement comes a day after Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir called in the French charge d'affaires in Israel to protest that French nuclear aid to Iraq will reinforce its "aggressive designs against Israel" and its neighbors.
This was the first time France had even hinted publicly at the nature of the restrictions on French enriched uranium deliveries to Iraq. The French statement, while surrounded by language strongly counterattacking the accusations that France has acted irresponsibly in its nuclear ties with Iraq, appeared to betray anxiety over criticisms that have recently been voiced by the French press.
U. S. official sources say Washington also has privately expressed its concern to France about the wisdom of shipping sensitive materials to unstable regions where a breach of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty could be dangerous.
In recent weeks, as France is understood to have delivered to Iraq, its first shipment of enriched uranium for a small research reactor known as Isis, Israel has been mounting an increasingly insistent campaign to underscore the danger that Iraq could develop atomic weapons as a result of French actions.
When then-prime minister Jacques Chirac first worked out the deal with Iraq in 1974, he is reported to have told the Iraqis that, while France could not and would not give Iraq nuclear weapons, it would provide the training and experience to make the Iraqis the most advanced nuclear nation in the Arab world. France has created a "nuclear university" outside Baghdad, and numerous Iraqi scientists have received high-level training at French nuclear research centers.
The French stress the rigor of the controls over Isis and its big-sister reactor, Osiris, scheduled to go into operation next year. U.S. sources say they do not challenge the strictness or effectiveness of the controls over the actual reactors and their highly enriched uranium while it makes them work. What worries them, the sources say, are murkier questions like the disposal of the spent fuel and what Iraq could do with the combination of the know-how and materials it might acquire by other means.
French sources have said unofficially that there would never be more than one charge at a time for the Iraqi reactors on Iraqi soil and that the used charge removed from the reactors would immediately be shipped back to France, rather than remain in Iraq.Provided a country has sophisticated reprocessing facilities that Iraq does not possess, a used charge can be turned back into weapons-grade material. If Iraq tried to keep the spent charges on its territory, Paris sources have said the Franco-Iraqi deal would automatically come to an end.
But diplomatic sources say that France has never given those assurances to the U.S. government offically, despite American attempts to get clarification on what happens to get clarification on what happens to the spent fuel, which will actually belong to Iraq.
The key paragraph in today's French statement said that Paris "gives its assurance that the arrangements for the deliveries of . . . uranium correspond solely to the needs of the research reactor provided, that they are scheduled to that end and that they are surrounded by all the necessary precautions." French briefers today steadfastly refused, however, to explain what actual arrangements are behind those words.
While France has published the diplomatic umbrella agreement for the two reactors and the nuclear training program under which a number of French atomic scientists have been working in Iraq, it has never made public the implementing contracts that constitute the nuts and bolts of the deal. Qualified U.S. sources say the United States and other allies of France have never been made privy to the details of the deal either.
U.S. officials have often said in the past that the French have taken care not to provide equipment that could actually lead its nuclear industry clients to weapons production, but other nations have not been so scrupulous on that point. The worst offenders are said to be Switzerland, West Germany, Brazil and, in the case of sales to Iraq, Italy, which drew official reproaches from Washington for authorizing the sale to Iraq of a sensitive piece of equipment that France refused to provide. Known as a "hot cell," the equipment allows the user to extract plutonium for use in atomic weapons from spent fuel.
Today's French statement also said that the government cannot see how Iraq could be refused the right to develop peaceful atomic power, that Iraq has signed the nonproliferation treaty and accepted the controls of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna and that most of the other research reactors sold elsewhere in the world also run on highly enriched uranium.The French government, it concluded, will continue its cooperation with Iraq for "perfectly legitimate aims" without "surrendering to pressures or intrigues."