Although Israel's destruction of Iraq's nuclear reactor has been universally condemned, the action has fortuitously revived international interest in the need to curb the proliferation of atomic weapons. That could turn out to be a global plus.
The effort to stem proliferation has been in the doldrums for over a year -- or ever since Jimmy Carter tried, without tangible success, to rally the Western powers behind a program to inhibit the production of nuclear bombs.
Now, however, the attack on Iraq has suddenly refocused interest on the problem at a time when the political climate appears to be more favorable for a new international initiative. Carter, for instance, encountered particular resistance from the French government, then under Valery Giscard d'Estaing. But now France has a new president, Francois Mitterrand, who, like Carter, has grave misgivings about nuclear anarchy.
Mitterrand, in fact, several years ago opposed the sale to Iraq of the French reactor that was bombed by Israel. He rightly feared it could "contribute to new tensions in that region." Today, Mitterrand says France would reconstruct the facility only if Iraq agreed to strict, safeguards against any possible military perversions, a rule that he intends to apply to all future French nuclear sales.
One acute problem with the nuclear plants being manufactured and sold around the world by the United States, France, Germany and Great Britain, among others, is that they have a plutonium potential. The reactors can generate electrical power with relatively low-grade uranium, which is useless for bomb-making purposes. However, the spent uranium, when reprocessed, yields plutonium, and the plutonium, as India proved, can secretly be made into nuclear weapons.
In February 1980, nuclear experts from 66 countries, including the United States and Russia, met in Vienna in an attempt to establish a world concensus on nuclear restraint. There was much talk of creating internationally controlled plutonium storage banks where nations would deposit their "excess" stocks of the weapons-grade material.
The American representative, Gerard Smith, said the United States was "prepared to work cooperatively" for the scheme, but little has come of it, either here or abroad. During the U.S. presidential campaign last year, Reagan was pointedly indifferent about the problem. Since the blasting of the Iraq reactor, though, he apparently has had some second thoughts.
At his June 16 news conference, President Reagan said he was "not only opposed to the proliferation of nuclear weapons," but "would like to enter into negotiations leading toward a definite, verifiable reduction of strategic nuclear weapons worldwide."
The latter part of that statement is especially encouraging, for it is not likely that the many non-nuclear nations are going to accept restraints unless the handful of big nuclear powers are prepared to impose limitations on themselves. Jimmy Carter put it this way:
"By enjoining sovereign nations to forgo nuclear weapons, we are asking for a form of self-denial that we have not been able to accept for ourselves. I believe we have little right to ask others to deny themselves such weapons for the indefinite future unless we demonstrate meaningful progress toward the goal of control, then reduction, and ultimately elimination of nuclear arsenals."
Although 114 nations have now signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, there are still some conspicuous holdouts, including France and China, two of the Big Five nuclear club, which includes Russia, Britain and the United States.
There are at least a dozen other countries that could quickly break into the nuclear club if they were so minded. India long ago exploded a "peaceful" device; and Israel is also believed to have achieved nuclear capability.
"There is no single issue as threatening as nuclear proliferation," says Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan (D-N.Y.). "We must stop this madness." Fair enough, but how?
Smith, who negotiated SALT I for the United States, suggests there could be a constructive clue in the Treaty of Tlatelolco, which established Latin America as the world's first nuclear-free zone. It was drafted in Mexico, and signed by the United States and 21 Latin neighbors.
Since then there has been talk of a similar zone for South Asia, designed to avert an atomic arms race between India and Pakistan. At the United Nations only a few months ago, Israel surprised the world by formally proposing a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East.
It was not taken seriously by the Arab bloc, although Iraq may now wish it had been. Instead, the president of Iraq is currently calling "on all peace-loving nations of the world" to help Arabs acquire nuclear weapons to balance Israel's supposed nuclear capability.
When the Senate Foreign Relations Committee met to review the Israeli raid on Iraq, Sen. Rudy Bochwitz (R-Minn.) said, "Very frankly, they probably did the world a favor." Few would go that far, but Israel at least has forced the world to think seriously about proliferation.