Israel's attack on Iraq's nuclear reactor 2 1/2 weeks ago and the ensuing verbal fallout add up to a new equation in the wars of words and deeds waged in the Middle East over the last three decades.
Just as the superpowers argue the necessity of nuclear weapons as deterrents, Iraq has now argued the Arab need for a nuclear potential to counter what is widely seen in the Arab world as a new Israeli aggresiveness. cThe Iraqi case is a mirror image of the Israeli defense of its attack and its nuclear capability as a counter to Iraq's perceived plans.
Whether this means the Arabs and Israelis are gearing up for the Mideast equivalent of the East-West nuclear arms race is a question still largely under the control of the members of the international nuclear club. But the rhetorical gauntlet has now been thrown down by both sides.
"What would happen to the Arabs and humanity if Israel were to impose conditions and the Arabs refuse them, and Israel would then use the atomic bomb against the Arabs because of this?" President Saddam Hussein of Iraq said in a broadcast address to his cabinet yesterday, his first public reponse to the June 7 Israeli raid on the Baghdad reactor.
This may seem an overreaction and deliberate exaggeration, but it is nontheless a widely felt fear throughout the Arab world, especially for countries that are developing or considering developing their own nuclear technology. They are asking themselves whether their plants might be subject to attack just on the suspicion the technology may also be used eventually to build a bomb.
It was in this context that Hassein said to his Cabinet: "I think that any country . . . that has a positive responsibility toward humanity and peace must say to the Arabs: 'Here, take arms and face the Zionist atomic threat so you may prevent the Zionist entity [israel] from using the atomic bomb against the Arabs and spare the world the danger of using atomic bombs in wars."
Responding in kind today, former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan said in Tel Aviv that "Israel has the ability to quickly produce nuclear weapons and will do so if the Arabs obtain atomic bombs."
No Israeli leader in recent years has confirmed that Israel is in the so-called near-nuclear club of countries that could assemble atomic weapons at short notice.
Isreal, Dayan told The Associated Press, "never thought of using nuclear weapons" against the Arabs. "But the picture changes completely when we think of the possibility that leaders like Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi [of Libya] might possess such weapons."
It was Hussein, in his remarks yesterday, who drew the superpower comparison as jsutification for an Arab nuclear dterrent. "This is the logic with which America deals with the Soviet Union and the Soviet Union with America, and the others [nuclear powers] with each other," the Iraqi leader said, according to a translation of his remarks made available here by the AP.
"Neither the Americans nor the Soviets have any real intention of using nuclear weapons against each other," the Iraqi leader argued "Yet, both the United States and the Soviet Union, together with the others, are constantly improving their weapons and nuclear technology for military purposes."
In effect, Hussein was saying that what is true for the antagonistic superpowers should also hold for aspiring Third World ones.
That Hussein appeal to obtain the bomb "one way or the other" can be taken in other context became quickly apparently today when Israeli officials, who were embarrassed earlier over a misquote about Iraqi intentions for its nuclear program, cited the speech as proof of thei contention that Iraq indeed seeks to build a bomb for use against Israel.
Hussein has "simply admitted that what we suspected was true," a spokesman in Prime Minister Menachem Begin's office was quoted by the Ap as saying. "If you are looking for evidence, this is it.The only thing the Iraqis want is an atomic bomb to use against Israel."
In addition to the fears raised by the Isreali action, the raid has posed serious questions for a number of Arab governments laying plans for the day when they will turn to nuclear energy because they no longer have oil in sufficient quantities to fuel their own booming economies.
Half a dozen Arab or Moslem states have projects underway to build nuclear plants either for electrical power, the desalination of water or research.
At an Arab nuclear conference held last week in Damascus, Syria and the United yarab Emirates announced they had schemes to construct nuclear power plants over the next 20 years to replace their near-total dependence on oil as an energy source. Saudi Arabia is known to have similar plans.
Egypt has a master plan to build eight nuclear plants by the year 2000 to cover 40 percent of its future power needs. It has already signed an agreement for two 1,000-megawatt reactors with France and another for two more is about to be concluded with the United States.
In addition, Qaddifi has made it known that Libya intends to become a nuclear power as soon as possible. So far, it has only a small research reactor, like Egypt. But the Soviet Uniton has promised to provide a 440-megawatt power reactor as well.
Probably the most advanced Moslem, though non-Arab, country is Pakistan, which is regarded by most experts as on the verge of joining the small club of nations with a nuclear military capability.
The problem for all the Arab nations now, if not for Pakistan, is whether Israel is going to reserve the right to decide whether they can go ahead with the nuclear development plans.
This must give even Egypt, the first Arab nation to sign a peace treaty with Israel, pause for there can be no certainty what the state of relations between these two nations will be after the demise of President Anwar Sadat.
Right now, Arab nations are all still at the crawling stage compared to Israel when it come to nuclear technology, with Iraq probably in the lead. But there is a deeply felt need among many of them to stand up and walk as part of their general economic and social development as well as part of their self-defense.
The Arab-Israeli struggle, said Hussein, is certain to persist for a long time.