Buying time

The West's truce with Iran is a positive step, but the threats posed by nuclear proliferation remain serious.

By Ian Traynor
Published November 23, 2004 8:41PM (UTC)
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Iran's decision to freeze the enrichment of uranium, implemented Monday under intense international pressure, appears to have stalled for the time being the mullahs' moves toward obtaining the key ingredient for a nuclear bomb.

The truce in the 18-month dispute between Iran and the West buys time for both sides -- for Iran to perfect its techniques in readiness for switching the machines back on should its pact with the E.U. break down, and for the nuclear inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency and Western governments to keep probing the Iranian operations and learn more about a 20-year-old program.


The threat of nuclear weapons spreading to hostile regimes is one of the most formidable challenges confronting President Bush as he enters his second and final term. While Bush went to war in Iraq to destroy, among other aims, a nuclear weapons program that had already been destroyed, more advanced nuclear programs have been making headway elsewhere.

From the dusty Iranian towns of Isfahan and Natanz to the poorly guarded stockpiles of plutonium and uranium scattered across Russia, from the closed complexes in North Korea to the military laboratories outside Islamabad, Pakistan, that a rogue Pakistani engineer turned into the offices of the world's first private nuclear shopping mall, the risks and threats posed by nuclear proliferation are now palpable.

"Nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism represent the single most important threat to U.S. and global security," Mohamed ElBaradei, the IAEA chief, said in a speech this month at Stanford University in California. Apart from the problem of securing Russia's colossal nuclear stockpiles -- 600 tons of bomb-grade uranium and plutonium held in warehouses, more than three-quarters of it not properly secured, according to the U.S. Department of Energy -- three other nuclear crises erupted on Bush's watch.


These are: North Korea's decision last year to abrogate the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, kick out the IAEA inspectors and pursue the bomb; 18 years of secret Iranian nuclear programs uncovered only last year; the revelations this year that disgraced Pakistani engineer Abdul Qadir Khan was running a private network peddling nuclear technology and warhead designs for cash to at least three customers -- Libya, Iran and North Korea.

But Col. Moammar Gadhafi was persuaded to renounce his nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction programs -- a rare event. The sole precedent is South Africa, where democracy in the early 1990s brought surrender of the apartheid regime's nuclear weapons program.

There are eight nuclear powers -- the U.N. Security Council's Big Five (the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France), plus India, Pakistan and Israel. The last three have not signed the NPT, the fundamental international instrument regulating nuclear weapons. More than 30 years old, the NPT is widely regarded as having surpassed expectations in containing the spread of the bomb.


"Thirty years ago people thought there would be 30 [nuclear] weapons states by now. There are eight," said John Ritch, a former Clinton administration nuclear control official who now heads the World Nuclear Association. "The NPT has been an enormous success."

But given globalization and modern information and technology flows, the NPT is fraying at the edges. It comes up for review next year amid tremendous international infighting behind the scenes. North Korea's abrupt abrogation of the treaty last year with impunity exposed one of the treaty's weaknesses and set a troubling precedent.


Experts and diplomats fear that countries as diverse as Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Nigeria could launch weapons programs if proliferation is allowed to flourish. In the attempt to get a grip on the problem, the Bush administration is relying on tougher international policing and powers of interdiction as well as seeking to ban the production of fissile material for nuclear bombs with a fissile materials cutoff treaty that would be internationally binding.

However, President Bush's special envoy on nuclear nonproliferation, Jackie Sanders, told a U.N. meeting last month that agreement on such a moratorium was getting bogged down in arguments about verification.

Many countries, including Iran, are against the U.S. proposals and suspect Washington is seeking to curb their rights, enshrined in the NPT, to manufacture their own nuclear fuel and enrich their own uranium. Nuclear fuel for power generation can be made into bomb-grade material in months. Many of the big nonaligned countries, such as South Africa, Malaysia and Brazil, discreetly support the Iranians in their nuclear dispute with the West because they fear that they will be next in line if Iran is forced to abandon uranium enrichment, legal under international law.


The governments of Sweden, South Africa, New Zealand, Ireland, Brazil, Mexico and Egypt -- the so-called New Agenda Coalition -- last month took the U.S. to task, arguing that Washington's campaign to clamp down on the spread of nuclear weapons would be counterproductive unless the nuclear powers themselves moved decisively toward disarmament.

IAEA chief ElBaradei has appointed a committee of experts to come up with other proposals. They are to report next spring. He has been campaigning in recent months for much tighter and more formal controls. He is also seeking to internationalize the supply of nuclear fuel for peaceful purposes by proposing the fuel be stored in a depository under multilateral control. The fuel would then be useless for weapons purposes.

But the Bush administration appears allergic to the notion of "multilateral," and the established weapons states would balk at having their nuclear supplies controlled by a U.N.-style body. "We have come to a fork in the road," said ElBaradei this month. "Either there must be a demonstrated commitment to move towards nuclear disarmament, or we should resign ourselves to the fact that other countries will pursue a more dangerous parity through proliferation."


There are other, relatively new risks: nuclear terrorism, dirty bombs or conventional explosives laced with radioactive materials, nuclear theft and nuclear trafficking. In the past decade there have been more than 600 confirmed incidents of trafficking in radioactive materials, with the annual figures continuing to rise. Most entail low-level radioactive devices, but experts and officials believe it is merely a matter of time before conventional terrorist explosives hit a nuclear facility or a dirty bomb causes panic in a major Western city.

Ian Traynor

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