DESPITE ALL the talk in he week that has passed since Israel's raid on the Iraqi reactor, there has been little discussion of two key questions: What was Iraq really up to? And what was the International Atomic Energy Agency doing about it?
Probably no one outside Iraq knows the full answer to the first, but a great deal has been revealed by unclassified sources. Iraq has, first of all, no commercial nuclear power program. Yet it has stockpiled several hundred tons of uranium ore. Why? No one is certain. The Israelis believe its purpose was to produce plutonium in the since destroyed reactor. Iraq has paid for training of scientists and technicians in all phases of the nuclear fuel cycle -- including the most sensitive. Iraq has also purchased laboratories known as "hot cells" from Italy, which are intended for handling highly radioactive materials. At least one of these is designed for separating plutonium -- the optimum weapons fuel -- from spent reactor rods.
Western intelligence sources apparently have no evidence of actual bomb design or construction in Iraq. Yet taken all together, Iraqi nuclear activities leave little room for any explanation other than a weapons program. Though the administration has made no official comment on Iraqi intentions, its views can be inferred from a recent speech by Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston who said, "I have been informed by more than one authoritative executive branch official, that in the absence of any associated power program, a weapons capability is clearly the option the Iraqis are pursuing." Sen. Cranston's statement has not been challenged or contradicted.
Why, then, was the IAEA, the United Nations agency set up to insure against the proliferation of nuclear weapons, doing nothing about the Iraqi program? A partial answer is that Iraq has done nothing to violate its commitments under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The treaty is written in such a way that a violation does not technically occur until nuclear material -- uranium or plutonium -- is diverted from its approved use. But this may occur within a few days of its insertion into a nuclear bomb. Since IAEA inspectors come around only a few times a year, the international safeguards system amounts to only an elaborate accounting procedure that relies on the good intentions of the parties being safeguarded.
The IAEA safeguards are also narrowly appled. They are focused on nuclear fuels, but not on facilities where fuel is not present. IAEA inspectors would therefore not have had access to the alleged underground weapons facility that the Israelis continue to claim Iraq had built.
A more subtle but possibly more debilitating weakness in the IAEA system derives from the agency's split personality. It has a policing function, but it also regards itself as a promoter of peaceful nuclear activities. Characteristically, the IAEA's first reaction to the raid was to criticize Israel for an action that "could do great harm to the development of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes" or, in other words, for nuclear commerce. Incredibly, the agency called on its members to give Iraq "emergency assistance" in rebuilding the damaged reactor.
In fact, Iraq's status as a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty may have been its greatest asset in its apparent pursuit of a weapons capability. Whenever questions have been raised about the wisdom of French and Italian exports, Western governments, including the United States, have repeatedly answered them with reference to the NPT. I should not go unnoticed not what when he is questioned about his own intentions, Libya's Col. Quddafi answers in precisely the same way.
If the Israeli raid provokes a serious reexamination of the IAEA safeguards system and the overreliance of nuclear suppliers on NPT membership as a substitute for hard-headed and, yes, even discriminatory policies based on the most reasonable estimate of nations' nuclear intentions, the raid may turn out, paradoxically, to have advanced the cause of non-proliferation.