The most remarkable fact about nuclear proliferation today, Michael Hirsh wrote yesterday in his Newsweek op-ed, is that there is so little of it.
Here’s a reality check. Twenty years ago, as the cold war was coming to a close, there were nine nuclear states. Today there are still just nine nuclear states. (And they are pretty much the same ones: the major nuclear powers of the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain, along with India and Pakistan and Israel. The only change is that instead of South Africa, which gave up its program in the ‘90s under U.S. pressure, North Korea today fills the ninth spot). It is the lack of proliferation in the world today that is most startling—and newsworthy—rather than the nightmare scenario of many backward nations almost inevitably acquiring the bomb...And let's not forget Libya, which Bush gets credit for in that he continued Clinton's policy of containment and sanctions - and it worked. However, Hirsh also notes, as have we all, that several Arab nations are now making noises about nuclear power and says bush should shoulder much of the blame for that due to his adventure in Iraq which has so harmed America's image as a relavitely benign global stabilizer. There is still plenty of time, Hirsh says, to turn that negative perception around and peacefully dissuade those Arab states and others from following the nuclear proliferation route before they move too far down that path.
...Matthew Bunn, a nuclear expert at Harvard [says], “Not only are there no more states today than were 20 years ago with nuclear weapons, but there are many more that started nuclear weapons programs that decided to give them up. The vast majority have concluded that nuclear weapons are not in their interest. They have observed that when states try to get weapons they get portrayed as rogue states. And nuclear weapons won’t solve the problems they really have.” Among the nations that have given up active programs: South Africa, Taiwan, South Korea, Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Sweden, Italy, Yugoslavia, Switzerland and Australia.
And speaking of time, it's interesting to note that independent British nuclear scientist Frank Barnaby thinks there's plenty of time to work with Iran on ensuring that it doesn't decide to follow North Korea down the nuclear weapons road. In an interview with radio Free Europe, Barnaby follows pretty much the same reasoning I've already set out about the timeline for any feasible Iranian weapon and comes up with a minimum of 10 years. And that's if the Iranians choose to go that route - something that there is no evidence for. He then goes on:
It seems to me very much better to take the Iranians at face value -- that they are interested, at the moment, in civil nuclear programs. We have no evidence that they are not and that that is untrue. We should negotiate, to stop them from going to get weapons-usable fissile material. That would be the most sensible plan. What else can you do? If you bomb them, if you try and destroy their nuclear facilities, then you will in fact accelerate the program. The Iranians would get nuclear weapons much [more quickly] if you bomb them because their program at the moment is fairly broad. It's a big program -- industrial-scale, almost. And if they are bombed, they may then focus on getting nuclear weapons. And that would be a small program. They would be able to do that rather rapidly. So it would be much better to leave them as they are -- not take any military action. But to try by diplomacy to prevent them from going for nuclear weapons.Barnaby notes that the Russians have a contract to take back the spent fuel from the Bushehr reactor, which would remove an important possible route to reprocessing and stockpiling plutonium from the Iranians. But what about that enriched uranium that they can make themselves to fuel grade and so could conceivably further enrich to weapons grade?
...It would be crazy to drive Iran out of the [Nuclear] Nonproliferation Treaty. It's much better to have them in because there are inspections going on. Now it is perfectly true that Iran may be hiding things from the inspectors. Who knows. But if they leave the Nonproliferation Treaty, there would be no inspections. We would have no information because most of the information we have at the moment is coming from the IAEA. If they are not there, we'll have no information at all and Iran may then rush towards a nuclear weapon capability and we wouldn't know about it. That's a much worse situation than have the inspectors there. Every effort should be made to keep Iran within the Nonproliferation Treaty.
Perhaps a news report that Iran intends to become a nuclear fuel exporter answers that one. To many, it seems clear Iran needs hard currency and foreign trade far more than it needs a nuclear bomb - and what better set of customers than those Arab states who have expressed an interest in nuclear power, since it would solve a diplomatic problem for Iran at the same time as bringing in hard cash? El-Baradei is self-evidently correct that U.S.-led insistence on zero enrichment in Iran to prevent it gaining nuclear knowledge (despite that being every NPT signatory's right) is now obsolete, and Russia's Putin obviously recognises that simple fact, saying ""We should find solutions that would not violate Iran's right to use modern technologies but would calm the international community's concerns over its possession of nuclear weapons." As Hirsh has pointed out, in the past the U.S. was really good at doing that kind of thing.