THE COUNTRY this time is Iraq. The problem is two European nuclear sales that could give that country a nuclear weapons capability within the space of a few years. The most immediate of these problems is a French-built research reactor. And the issue is this: Why are the French supplying Iraq with highly enriched uranium fuel to run it? As with most other research reactors, this one was originally designed to run on fuel so highly enriched that it can be used directly in a bomb. Such fuel can also be easily reprocessed, and just around the corner is a planned sale by Italy of a small-scale reprocessing facility that would give Iraq just that ability.

There is some relevant history here. Several years ago, the United States urged an international effort to develop new research reactor fuels that could not double as the ingredients of nuclear explosives. Otherwise, the United States argued, research reactors could become a major source of nuclear weapons spread. Then France announced that it had found such a fuel, which it calls "caramel." The French were proud and spared no efforts in letting others know of their achievement.

That, however, was where the good news ended. Despite U.S. pleadings, France has apparently allowed Iraq to refuse to accept the safer "caramel" fuel and has agreed to fuel the reactor with the original weapons-grade material. Recent reports in the French press suggest that some or all of the initial loading of 70 kilograms of fuel has already been shipped to Iraq, even though the reactor will not be ready for about a year. That amount is sufficient to produce about four Hiroshima-sized weapons.

France argues that since Iraq has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, there is no cause for concern. France also insists that it has required all possible safeguards to protect the fuel from misuse -- but it has steadfastly refused to say what these precautions are: especially who and what will ensure that the spent reactor fuel is removed from Iraq every few months, as soon as it has been removed from the reactor. French sources have said privately that if the safeguards were ever breached, it would terminate the deal immediately. Swell.

There is little doubt that Iraq possesses a high degree of nuclear know-how. France created and supported a "nuclear university" near Baghdad, and many Iraqi nuclear scientists have trained in France.

The United States has no direct control over the French sale, but it has an interest that goes well beyond the common goal of non-proliferation, for this country supplies much of the highly enriched unranium France needs. Since 1957, the United States has shipped France more than 5,000 kilograms of the stuff. No one suggests that U.S.-supplied fuel will end up in Iraq. But it is because the United States supplies large parts of France's own needs that France can sell 70 kilograms of what it produces to Iraq. Surely that puts the United States in a strong position to insist that France export only the safer caramel fuel it developed.

Though the United States has a special interest, however, the Iraqi sales are not just a matter for U.S. concern. All governments with a serious interest in stopping or slowing the spread of nuclear weapons must be concerned about a new locus of proliferation in the most volatile region of the world. All possible pressure needs to be brought to persuade both France and Italy that Western -- and world -- security would be better served by a more cautious nuclear sales policy to Iraq.