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Regional Outlook : For the Middle East, Arms Control Is No Longer Unthinkable : Poison gas, ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons have raised the stakes to unprecedented heights. This balance of terror may one day push old enemies into a new willingness to talk.


WASHINGTON — Around a green baize table somewhere in neutral Europe huddle a dozen of the Middle East's most implacable enemies.

Sitting rigidly in his uniform is Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Across the way, a seemingly perpetual scowl on his face, is Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. Syrian President Hafez Assad glances suspiciously from one dangerous adversary to the other. Both Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani and Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi stand out in their long, flowing robes and distinctive headgear.

This most extraordinary collection of Middle East leaders has gathered to talk about destroying their nuclear bombs, poison gas and ballistic missiles. Given the balance of terror that has evolved in the region, they see little choice. . . .

Such a meeting would have been totally unthinkable a few years ago, and it is still decidedly a long shot in a region scarred by generations of conflict, hatred and suspicion. But for the first time ever, the prospect of Middle East arms control is being seriously discussed from Baghdad to Tel Aviv to Washington.

The message came recently from a most unlikely figure: Iraq's usually belligerent President Hussein. Almost overlooked in the bluster of his threat to destroy "half of Israel" with chemical weapons was a suggestion by Hussein last month that the bitterly antagonistic nations of the Middle East should begin negotiations to rid the region of weapons of mass destruction.

"Arms control is an idea whose time clearly has come," a State Department official said recently. "Everyone is aware of the missile proliferation and the chemical warfare proliferation. People are ready to grapple with the issue. If it wasn't difficult, it wouldn't be an issue."

In an area racked by warfare for thousands of years, technology has run amok. The weapons available to the region's disputatious leaders have become far more deadly than they used to be. The spread of ballistic missiles capable of sending nuclear or chemical warheads to almost any target in the compact region has reduced warning times and increased the danger of war by accident.

"The offense is getting ahead of the defense," said Samuel W. Lewis, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and now president of the U.S. Institute of Peace. "When you have some days of warning time to watch the enemy's buildup and to consult coolly about the risks, the situation is different from the one where, without any obvious preparation, someone can just launch a battery of missiles.

"This means there is a greater temptation to launch a preemptive strike," he said.

Israel, Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran all have arsenals of ballistic missiles. Israel is known to have both nuclear and chemical weapons. Iraq has chemical weapons and could have nuclear weapons within a decade. Syria has long possessed poison gas. Egypt is believed to have revived a long-dormant chemical weapons program. Iran has at least the potential for producing chemical weapons.

In addition, Libya, where the mercurial Kadafi adds an element of instability, has built a poison gas plant and may be producing deadly chemicals.

The arms race is both dangerous and expensive. It was just such a combination of terror and cost that drove the United States and the Soviet Union to the arms control table 20 years ago. But the situation is far more complex in the Middle East, where hatreds are deeper and tempers are shorter.

Unlike the Washington-Moscow confrontation, the Middle East does not divide easily into two competing camps that have to deal only with each other. Israel and Iraq are bitter enemies, with the most potent military forces. But they would never reduce their weaponry without complementary steps by other antagonists in the region.

Both Israel and Iraq have such bad relations with Syria, for example, that the possibility of armed confrontation with that country is always present. Also, Iraq and non-Arab Iran remain mortal enemies despite the uneasy 1988 cease-fire in their eight-year war. Israel's relations with Jordan, while currently stable, could erupt into conflict at any time. And Kadafi adds a dangerous joker to the pack.

Nevertheless, if Israel and Iraq agreed to arms control talks, the rest of the region would probably go along--at least as far as the negotiating table. And, right now, those two nations may have the most to gain, both militarily and politically, from such a conference.

"Israel and Iraq, the two most technologically advanced powers, have become fearful of each other's potential," said Geoffrey Kemp, a White House expert on the Middle East during the Reagan Administration who is now a senior associate of the Carnegie Foundation for International Peace in Washington. "This coincidence of fears in Israel and Iraq leads to a dangerous situation. The risk of confrontation by miscalculation cannot be ruled out."

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