Nuclear breakout Monday,July28,2003 IHI
Alarming as they are, the nuclear-bomb-making programs of North Korea and Iran are part of much bigger problem. The international controls that contained the spread of nuclear weapons for decades are crumbling. Major repairs are needed, and the Bush administration, preoccupied with Iraq and wrongly viewing the nuclear challenge as limited to a few rouge states, is not pressing hard enough for the changes.
The first warning sign came from Iraq in the early 1990s. In a nearly successful end run around the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Iraq used a legal civilian nuclear energy program as a decoy to acquire know-how and materials for bomb making. It came frighteningly close to success before defeat in the Gulf War exposed its nuclear secrets.
In 1998, India and Pakistan crashes their way into the nuclear weapons club. Again, civilian nuclear programs were the stepping-stones, along with help from China in Pakistan’s case. Neither India nor Pakistan ever signed the nonproliferation treaty, for which they suffered no real penalties. Now, nuclear breakouts seem likely from North Korea, perhaps this year, and Iran, not much later.
Terrorism and nuclear proliferation are the most serious security threads faced by America today. Washington has no serious conventional military rivals. But unconventional weapons, especially nuclear weapons, are great equalizers. The United States should lead an urgent international effort to repair the torn fabric of nuclear proliferation controls. The question is how.
One starting point is a frank acknowledgment that the Nonproliferation Treaty is no longer adequate in its present form. The treaty does not ban enriching uranium or reprocessing plutonium, the two basic methods of making nuclear bomb fuel. It relies on the good faith of governments. It has no clear enforcement mechanisms
The ideal place to demonstrate international resolve is the UN Security Council, which is empowered to apply sanctions and even military force against countries that violate the Nonproliferation Treaty. The United States and Europe, including France, stand together on this issue. Russia wants to preserve its lucrative commercial nuclear relationship with Iran. But in recent months it has also seemed to recognize that Tehran’s quest for nuclear weapons could make this impossible. China is clearly unhappy with North Korea’s nuclear brinkmanship. If Russia begins to take a tougher attitude in the Security Council, Beijing might go along.
Even if they resist international action through the Security Council, there are powerful steps Russia and China could take on their own. They could refuse to share nuclear technology with any country suspected of experimenting with uranium enrichment of plutonium reprocessing. It would be difficult for additional countries to learn how to produce these bomb fuels without outside help. Moscow and Beijing could also agree to join Europe and the United States in planning to intercept any future North Korean exports of nuclear materials.
The Nonproliferation Treaty itself needs strengthening. The more intrusive inspection arrangements drafted after the Iraq experience should be accepted by all signers. And the loophole that lets counties manufacture bomb fuel under the guise of civilian power programs must be closed.
Counties that do not agree to both changes should be cut off from all civilian nuclear cooperation and diplomatically ostracized in other ways as well. Those that do could be offered economic incentives and security assurances.
Moving forward on these fronts would rebuild a more reliable international system for restraining the spread of nuclear weapons. America would still retain the right to act on its own, using military force if necessary, to counter grave threats to it national security. But the likelihood of having to take such action would be dramatically reduced.