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THE CLINTON ADMINISTRATION is all steamed up about Russia helping Iran construct a nuclear reactor near the Persian Gulf.

Moscow is equally peeved at Washington for asking it to give up the $1 billion contract, knowing how much Russia needs the money.Just as he failed to dissuade the Russians from selling Tehran submarines last year, so did Defense Secretary William Perry fail to dissuade them from going ahead with the reactor deal. President Clinton will try again at his May summit with Boris Yeltsin - but he doesn't have much of a leg to stand on.

The Russians rightly point out that we employ a double standard in trying to curb arms sales and the spread of nuclear technology - it's OK for us to be merchants of death, not OK for anyone else.

The United States is by far the world's largest arms salesman. Our share of the weapons market is an overwhelming 70 percent, and we're not all that careful about whom we sell to.

Last year our State Department approved $25.6 billion in arms sales, and the Pentagon gave away another $12.8 billion worth. The White House says we are doing this "to promote peaceful conflict resolution, arms control, human rights and democratization."

But author William Hartung points out that American arms figure in 39 of the globe's 48 wars. And an expose by the Newhouse News Service has revealed that many of our weapons go to dictatorships condemned by Washington for flagrant human rights abuses.

Thus, while the State Department was publicly lambasting the military regime in Nigeria, it secretly approved the sale of more than a half-million dollars worth of weapons to Nigeria's generals.

It also allowed $85.7 million worth of arms to be sold to Pakistan, in direct violation of a congressional arms embargo imposed to discourage Pakistan's nuclear weapons program; $9.4 million to Guatemala, barred from receiving military aid because of its human rights abuses; and $60 million for Colombia, our principal source of cocaine.

Even more bizarre was a weapons shipment to Rwanda. One wonders how it helped "peaceful conflict resolution" in a country where the world's most horrific genocide occurred last year.

The same double standard applies to our nuclear policy. We do not want Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Pakistan or India to have the bomb - but we are strangely silent on Israel's nuclear arms.