THE world may be sitting on top of the next nuclear crisi without even knowing it.
That is because at least five Middle Eastern countries -- Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya and Algeria -- are working to develop nuclear weapons. (Israel already has the bomb.)
Like Iraq, they are buying strategic technologies from Western companies. They are also attempting to acquire nuclear materials from the former Soviet Union.
The United States has not learned the lessons of the Iraq debacle. Half the equipment licensed for sale to Iran by the Commerce Department over the past four years is considered "nuclear weapons relevant" by the Energy Department.
Our export-control system continues to obey commercial rather than strategic imperatives, despite overwhelming evidence that American technology is being used for weapons programs that could one day be turned against us.
Export controls are not a panacea; regional arms-control talks and other political initiatives must also be pursued. The proliferators, however, will not wait for international negotiations to bear fruit. We need stronger export controls immediately.
To avoid gridlock while awaiting necessary legislative review, Bill Clinton can take these steps when he becomes president:
* Issue an executive order declaring a national emergency on the grounds that we are threatened by the proliferation of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. This would give him the power to invoke national-security controls on all relevant exports.
* Establish a National Security Export Control Group, headed by a senior deputy to the national security adviser, to review proposed exports. The Commerce, State, Defense and Energy departments, along with the intelligence agencies and the Customs Service, should have veto power over export licenses.
* Join with our allies in establishing a single multilateral non-proliferation regime. It would review exports to countries that may be misusing Western technologies.
A positive step was taken this week in Paris, when the United States and its Western allies met for the first time with the governments of the former Soviet republics to discuss establishing export control systems in the former Soviet bloc.
In addition, member countries should publish lists of approved exports. Today, export-licensing records remain classified. Respectable companies doing business with reliable customers will suffer no shame in making their contracts public. It is primarily the handful of violators who lobby for secrecy.
* Encourage Argentina, Brazil, India and other non-Western suppliers of high technology to adhere to the new guidelines. Failure to do so should lead to automatic trade sanctions and a cutoff in U.S. foreign aid.
* Give special attention to China. Throughout the 1980s, the United States encouraged American companies to expand their trade with China.
The Chinese have demonstrated a voracious appetite for American high-tech, which they have used wantonly to improve their defense-manufacturing base. American mainframe computers have helped China design the new ballistic missiles it exports to Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran, Libya and Pakistan. American machine tools have helped the Chinese make more accurate warheads.
China should be told firmly that continued exports of ballistic missiles and nuclear-weapons technology to the world's trouble spots will lead to trade sanctions and a suspension of most-favored-nation status.
Mr. Clinton's statements last week indicate he may be softening his stance on China. That would be a mistake. A tougher line would cost the taxpayer nothing: We run a $13 billion trade deficit with China, second only to our deficit with Japan. It would also make the world safer.
Proliferation is the main security problem of the 1990s. The new administration must address the issue immediately, or there is a real risk that we will be faced with Desert Storm II and a half-dozen more Iraqs before Mr. Clinton's first term is up.
Kenneth R. Timmerman is author of "The Death Lobby: How the West Armed Iraq."