Skeptics ask, will China honor its pledge

WASHINGTON — Middle East military analysts and pro-Israel activists are welcoming China's pledge to forgo new nuclear dealings with Iran, but remain skeptical about whether Beijing will honor its commitment.

President Clinton last week concluded an agreement clearing the way for U.S. firms to sell nuclear reactors to China, provided that Beijing lives up to its commitment to stop selling technology to Iran and other nations that could be used to build nuclear weapons.

Halting Beijing's technology transfers to Iran is viewed as a crucial part of efforts to contain Iran, which has been attempting to develop biological, chemical and nuclear capabilities.

Iran's acquisition of such weapons of mass destruction could threaten Israel, the Middle East and world security.

Indeed, the U.S.-Chinese agreement came as Congress launched a new legislative initiative aimed at preventing Iran from developing such weapons.

Although China's assistance to Iran's nuclear aspirations has focused on the development of a civilian nuclear power program, Washington believes that such transfers would help provide know-how that could eventually be used to make bombs.

China's halt would "choke off a major source of support for the Iranians, but the key question is `if' because we know that China has not necessarily broken its promises, but sidestepped them before," said Dov Zakheim, a former deputy undersecretary of defense in the Reagan administration.

"The key question, of course, is the verifiability of the Chinese commitment," said Martin Raffel, associate executive vice chairman of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

"We would expect that the administration would be tough on that point and would require the Chinese to be very open about fulfilling [the] commitment."

China has long been accused of providing countries such as Iran and Pakistan with technology that could be used to develop nuclear weapons.

While Beijing has denied the allegations, the Central Intelligence Agency recently reported that in the second half of 1996, China was the "primary source of nuclear-related equipment and technology to Pakistan and a key supplier to Iran."

Following last week's U.S.-China summit meeting, the White House said China was taking a range of actions to keep weapons of mass destruction and other sophisticated weapons "out of unstable regimes and away from rogue states and terrorists."

One Middle East analyst said of the deal: "The key thing is to really make sure the Chinese have their feet held to the fire before anything is actually delivered in terms of U.S. nuclear technology.

"It's important we not just take them at their word, that we trust, but verify," said the analyst, who asked not to be identified.

Despite Beijing's new pledge, some analysts speculate that a good deal of damage already has been done. China has steadily supplied Iran in recent years with technology that has boosted Iran's weapons technology.

While the Chinese agreement would close off a major avenue for technology transfers, Iran is likely to continue drawing on other sources, such as Russia, for help in its weapons development program.

Some analysts, in fact, believe that Russian cooperation with Iran poses a more immediate concern.

Israeli military officials have warned that with continued help from Russian engineers and scientists, Tehran would have the ability to launch ballistic missiles equipped with chemical, biological and other warheads to Israel and other states in the region within the next 18 months.

"If a deal with the Russians similar to one with the Chinese can be worked out, I think we'd be in much better shape," said the Middle East analyst.

Indeed, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, along with other Jewish organizations, has made the containment of Iran a top agenda item.

The pro-Israel lobby is engaging in "emergency mobilization" to win congressional support of legislation introduced last week.

The legislation, sponsored by Sens. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and in the House by Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.), would automatically impose sanctions on foreign companies known to have transferred missile technology to Iran.