The Magazine

Nukes on the Loose

Time for a new nonproliferation regime.

Jun 23, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 40 • By HENRY SOKOLSKI
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THE UNITED STATES has only begun to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction. This is the core message of George W. Bush's May 31 speech in Krakow, where he announced his intent to work with like-minded states to interdict nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and the missiles to carry them. For the moment, his initiative will concentrate on harmonizing the interdiction laws of our friends. In trying to develop common rules of what goods are illicit, though, the need for more generalized rules will quickly become apparent.

What most cries out for attention are the disturbing loopholes in our existing nonproliferation efforts. North Korea recently threatened to transfer its nuclear weapons. Yet, because Pyongyang withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), it can now legally export its nuclear capabilities. And if North Korea or Pakistan (which has never signed the NPT) wants to redeploy some of its nuclear weapons to a country that has signed the treaty, it need only claim that the weapons are still under its control. The recipient--a Libya or a Saudi Arabia--could then take delivery (just as Germany has done from the United States) without violating any NPT rules.

Then, there is the problem of Iran. Assuming Moscow proceeds with its construction and fueling of Iran's Busheir reactor, Tehran in 25 to 30 months will have all the nuclear material it needs to break out with scores of nuclear arms in a matter of weeks. Even if Russia cut off its aid to Iran, Tehran already has enough nuclear technology to make a bomb by 2006. How did this happen? Iran acquired most of its nuclear capabilities covertly, and, yet, was able to do so, for the most part, without violating the nonproliferation treaty. Now Syria, Egypt, and other nations see Iran as a possible model for legally acquiring a nuclear option of their own. In addition, any nation, including Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea, Iraq, or Iran, can export items critical to making weapons of mass destruction without violating any international law.

Trying to close these loopholes country by country can help, but it's hardly sufficient. Determined proliferators will cheat or refuse to cooperate. That's why an enforceable international prohibition on trafficking in weapons of mass destruction needs to be created, like those already in place against piracy and slave trading. Any nation's attempt to redeploy chemical, nuclear, or biological warheads outside of its borders or to ship the key means to make them should be deprived the protection of international law. This would allow nations that oppose proliferation to search or seize the illicit freight of violators with or without their consent, wherever they are, outside of friendly ports or even on the high seas. Like piracy and trading in slaves, trade in weapons of mass destruction would make one an outlaw--i.e., subject to the enforcing action of any law-abiding citizen.

How could this be done? The key ingredients needed to make strategic weapons are already internationally recognized. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) lists all special nuclear materials. The Australia Group catalogs key chemical and biological weapons-related items. The Nuclear Suppliers Group identifies critical dual-use nuclear gear and prohibits the export of enrichment and reprocessing plants, and the Missile Technology Control Regime does the same for cruise and ballistic missiles. Meanwhile, U.S. law requires American businesses to pre-announce most of these exports publicly. Several friendly nations have similar laws. These practices should help in creating the international common usage that's required.

To begin, we should work with our friends, as the president suggested, and shore up our own laws where needed. What should come next? First, all nations should give prior public notification of their export of nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons-related items. As the number of cooperating nations grows, so too will pressures for those not participating to comply. The price for noncompliance should be clear: Any transfer that is not properly pre-announced should be subject to interdiction.

Second, no nation should be allowed any longer in peacetime to redeploy nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons outside its borders. This rule is one the United States, with its various submarine-launched ballistic and cruise missile systems, long range bombers, air-launched cruise missiles, and sea-based strike aircraft, can easily live with. Any nation violating this rule, whether friendly (e.g., Pakistan) or not (e.g., North Korea), should, again, be subject to interdiction.