Under American pressure, Argentina has finally turned over "missing" parts from a ballistic missile developed by this country with Iraq.
The dismantling of Argentina's Condor II missile program is "all finished," Defense Minister Oscar Camilion said last week. In return, Argentina wants the right to buy militarily sensitive technology from the United States and other countries.
"There can be no doubt that within very little time Argentina is going to need extremely high levels of technical cooperation," Camilion said in an interview.
Argentine access to advanced telecommunications, computer and aerospace technology for peaceful uses could mean a potential new market for high-tech companies, including those in California. "Indeed, there could be opportunities down the line for U.S. companies to work in Argentina," a foreign analyst observed.
After Argentina's 1982 war with Britain over the Falkland Islands, the Argentine air force developed the Condor II, a ground-to-ground missile with an estimated range of 600 miles and a projected payload of up to 1,000 pounds. The Condor never flew. But the project, together with an Argentine nuclear program, worried neighboring countries and many others.
One worrisome fact was that Argentina was working on the missile together with Iraq and Egypt. The Argentine role in developing the ballistic missile capability of Saddam Hussein's aggressive Iraqi regime is still a murky matter.
"Basically, they used Argentina as a kind of hideaway spot to develop it," said Dennis Kane, a staff spokesman for the Banking Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. Kane said by telephone from Washington that German and Italian companies were among suppliers of material and equipment for the project.
Camilion said he doubted that the Argentine government ever had "too direct a contact with Iraq" in the project. "That was more like a diffuse area managed by the companies that contributed to the production of technology," said Camilion, who became defense minister in April. He said he also doubted that Iraq or Egypt had directly helped finance the Argentine missile project, but "there may have been funds of Arab origin."
Acknowledging that Argentina exported 14 rocket engines to Egypt as part of the project, he said he did not know whether those engines stayed in Egyptian hands. The Buenos Aires newspaper Clarin has reported that U.N. inspectors found Condor II engines from Argentina in Iraq.
Camilion said the Argentine missile factory, known as Falda del Carmen, and one in Iraq were part of a "parallel project."
"It seems that the two plants were identical," he said. Asked whether Iraqi technicians worked here, he said: "It is possible. I couldn't confirm it, but I don't rule it out." He did confirm that Egyptian technicians worked on the project in Argentina.
The Argentine program continued for nearly two years after President Carlos Saul Menem took office in 1989. In 1991, the Menem administration transferred the project to a new civilian space agency and announced the deactivation of the secluded and secretive Falda del Carmen factory.
Argentina hopes to join the international Missile Technology Control Regime by agreeing to its safeguards. The United States has offered to sponsor Argentina for membership if it turns over all sensitive Condor II material for disposal by the international group.
Argentina delivered a large shipment of missile material through Spain in January, but the United States said a number of key parts and components were missing. They were being withheld by hard-line air force officers, according to sources. After much U.S. insistence, the government produced the missing parts, which were shipped to Spain in mid-September.
Camilion said those parts included two electronic guidance systems, three computers, launching devices and a tower. But Argentina has yet to give up several components of the Falda del Carmen factory, including a sophisticated X-ray machine, a solid-fuel grinder and a mixer. The newspaper La Nacion has reported that fuel mixers in the factory were of American origin.
The Argentines want to put those components in mothballs until it is determined whether the factory can be reconverted for peaceful uses. U.S. officials have insisted that the components are on a list of material to be given up.
The Americans also are still waiting for the Argentines to collect and turn over some drawings and computer software from the project.
A foreign official who is monitoring the process said he is convinced that the Argentine government will end up satisfying requirements to enter the missile control regime. "The Condor is dead," the official said. "There may be a carcass and a few pieces here and there, but the program is dead."
As a result of that and Argentina's decision also to comply with international nuclear safeguards, he said, this country will have access to sensitive technologies "that were not available to them before."
Defense Minister Camilion said examples of future needs include telecommunications equipment, including satellites, and supercomputers. "I wouldn't say that today in 1993 this is an indispensable requisite, but I haven't the slightest doubt that it will be by the end of the decade," he said.
He said Argentina also hopes to resume a fledgling space program that was started in the 1960s but was later discontinued.