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On the way to pressuring Russia into withdrawing from its agreement to provide Iran with nuclear reactor technology, the United States may well have ensured itself a rougher ride in securing the permanent extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Although the administration has designated the passage of a permanent, unconditional NPT as a priority, it will have to overcome mounting criticism among those undecided countries which say that the nuclear regime has benefited only the Western industrialized nations and their allies -- creating an unfair and counterproductive double standard.

Such complaints will be difficult to refute when 172 nations meet next month in New York to decide on the future of the treaty, which was adopted 25 years ago.

The United States, the undecided nations say, has been at the forefront of creating this double standard, which is evident in the way it views the activities of, say, Japan and Israel -- its allies -- as opposed to countries such as Pakistan, China, North Korea and now Iran.

With respect to Russia's contract to provide "peaceful" nuclear power technology to Iran, the Clinton administration deserves credit for decoupling the volatile issue from U.S. aid to Russia. But Warren Christopher's reiterated stance that the United States opposes "any nuclear cooperation with Iran by Russia or other countries" underscores the double-standard reality.

Iran, as a sovereign nation and an NPT signatory, has a legal right to acquire a nuclear reactor if it agrees to the International Atomic Energy Agency inspections and other safeguards, which it has apparently done.

Our inflexible opposition to this action not only compromises our ability to influence the terms of the Russian-Iranian deal, it could reduce Iran or any other country's incentive to work within international structures for nuclear cooperation.

I am not so sure Russia's interests in this matter conflict at all with those of the United States. Russia has no interest in helping establish a nuclear weapons-capable Muslim state on its southern periphery. Indeed, it has strong reasons to be fearful of such an eventuality.

First, there is a sizable Muslim population within Russia's borders and in the outlying former Soviet states. Second, it is fighting a war with one of its own Muslim outposts, Chechnya.

Russia may see great strategic benefit in engaging in a cooperative agreement with Iran, since only the Muslim world could keep the Chechen conflict boiling indefinitely. A Russian Nuclear Ministry spokesman accused the United States of duplicity in its position on the Iranian deal, citing Washington's intention to send the same kind of reactors to North Korea as part of the Carter-brokered settlement last June.

While the future nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea -- or any other country led by an authoritarian regime -- are of vital national concern, we are more likely to meet our long-term objectives if worrisome countries such as Iran remain within the NPT framework. And certainly inflammatory rhetoric, bossiness and double standards won't help to get it passed.

SUSAN EISENHOWER is chairman of the Center for Post-Soviet Studies.

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