The Magazine

Two, Three, Many North Koreas

Would-be nuclear proliferators are learning from Pyongyang.

Feb 3, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 20 • By HENRY SOKOLSKI
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FIRST, IRAQ VIOLATED ITS PLEDGE not to try to acquire nuclear weapons. Then North Korea did the same. Who's next? Bank on a slew of others, including a fair number of America's friends.

How soon? More likely than not, about 30 months from now. By then, Iran's nuclear reactor at Busheir will have been operational for about a year. At which point, Iran could extract fifty or more bombs' worth of weapons-grade plutonium from the reactor's spent fuel rods in a matter of weeks. Doing this would violate the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), but, given past U.S. and Allied sloth in enforcing this treaty (consider Iraq and North Korea), the mullahs could easily conclude that abandoning the treaty, or even just threatening to, will give them leverage.

Even Iran's "reformers" now complain that their government is not pushing its bomb project fast enough. Further dawdling, they warn, risks turning Iran into an American war target like Iraq. To avoid this and get the kind of respect Pyongyang is now receiving from Washington, Iran, they insist, must build its bomb now.

Such impatience makes sense. It's not as if Iran can conceal its ambition to possess nuclear weapons. Last November, U.S. newspapers published satellite photos of a previously undisclosed Iranian uranium enrichment facility and a heavy water plant. Iran insists it has broken no rules, and says it will allow inspections of the photographed plants as required by the International Atomic Energy Agency, just as soon as these facilities have uranium or heavy water in them. Other would-be bomb makers, however, have gotten the point: To get within weeks of a bomb without violating the NPT, one need only follow Iran's example.

This brings us to Syria. Earlier this month, Moscow and Damascus formalized plans to build a large nuclear desalinization plant on Syria's coast. The agreement, which deals Moscow into a major Syrian oil pipeline project, includes training for Syrian scientists as well as access to Russia's leading nuclear institutes (the same kind of deal Moscow cut with Iran a decade ago). Russian and Syrian officials insist that this nuclear cooperation is purely peaceful. Will the Syrians use this project to build a nuclear infrastructure like the one Russia helped build for Iran?

This question is now being asked by leading Egyptian officials and nuclear scientists. Certainly the Syrian announcement did not go unnoticed in the government-run press. Nor did Egyptian newspapers pass up the opportunity to commend North Korea's success in getting the United States to play ball. The Egyptian press insist their country must not be anything less than second when it comes to having nuclear weapons in the region. How can Egypt get a weapons option if it's a member of the NPT? Easy: Develop a "peaceful" nuclear program first. Not more than seven months ago, Egypt's energy minister reiterated plans to complete a nuclear power station in Al-Dhab'a by 2010.

Who else in the region needs watching? Saudi Arabia. News reports indicate that Saudi officials have toured Pakistan's secret uranium enrichment plant at Kahuta, a facility many believe the Saudis helped pay for. Pakistan is estimated to have 50 or more nuclear weapons. The Saudis, meanwhile, still own several inaccurate medium-range Chinese missiles, which lack effective warheads. A little-understood fact is that under the NPT, members can legally accept nuclear weapons onto their soil so long as the donor state retains control.

Another worry: If Iran goes nuclear, what might Turkey do? Turkey has repeatedly sought security assurances from its European allies, regarding a possible Iranian nuclear threat. Unfortunately, Europe has never fully accepted Turkey as an ally. If Iran goes nuclear, will Turkey be reassured by U.S. security promises alone or will it feel the need to turn to its nuclear friend Israel for assistance, possibly to help it develop its own nuclear option?

Then, there's Algeria. Ten years ago, the North African country fired up its second research reactor, a plant that some experts fear because its large size, extensive air defenses, and covert construction suggest it was intended to make nuclear weapons. What might Algeria or its neighbor Libya, which previously tried to buy nuclear weapons, do if any of the above states moved to acquire a bomb?

More countries could be in line. Taiwan and South Korea have both tried to acquire nuclear weapons in the past. Japan could quickly make thousands of bombs from the nuclear material it has on hand. What if American security guarantees were to weaken? What would stop these and other client states from going nuclear?