Paul Harris (New York) & Jason Burke (London) / The Observer – 2005-02-22 08:12:36
(February 20, 2005) — It was 1.22am last Monday on the frozen Alaskan island of Kodiak when the missile flared upwards into the night sky. As the rocket’s flames disappeared into darkness, United States military chiefs waited with baited breath to see if their multibillion dollar ‘Son of Star Wars’ defence shield would work.
Thousands of miles away on the Pacific island of Kwajalein another missile was primed to intercept the Alaskan launch, soaring to destroy its target in the upper atmosphere and thus ‘save America from nuclear devastation’. It never made it. The test failed.
On Kwajalein metal supports holding the interceptor rocket failed to disengage. If it had been real the enemy nuke would have hit its target. The system has now failed in six out of nine tests. Many experts believe it simply does not work.
But this does not deter the Pentagon. It is in a frenzy to put a missile shield around America. The threat from nuclear attack is now once more at the centre of strategic planning. The missile defence shield is not seen as a throwback but as a vital part of defence. Nuclear weapons too remain in US plans, it is now looking at developing a whole new range of ‘bunker buster’ nukes.
A new nuclear arms race is gripping the world. Many experts believe the likelihood of such an attack is greater now than it was during the Cold War. North Korea has already claimed it has nuclear weapons, Iran could be on the brink of building them. Both nations could trigger arms races among their neighbours. The international system set up to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons has sprung a series of leaks. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has warned of a ‘cascade’ of states going nuclear.
But that might not even be the biggest threat. Behind the ambitions and fears of nations lurk terrorist networks bent on acquiring weapons. Few doubt the most extreme groups would love to use them. It is a bleak picture that makes the Cold War look almost safe. ‘We are in an extremely dangerous time right now,’ said Natalie Goldring, a proliferation expert at the University of Maryland.
The Gang of Eight
At the moment the world’s nuclear club is eight strong. There are the original big five of the US, China, Russia, Britain and France and three newcomers of India, Pakistan and Israel. That has now changed. If the pronouncements coming out of Pyongyang are to be believed, the reclusive and impoverished Stalinist state of North Korea has now become the club’s newest member.
Some disbelieve the official rhetoric. North Korea is desperate for foreign aid and wants face-to-face talks with America. It is possible that this latest move is just a bluff. ‘I would not take anything the North Koreans say at face value,’ said Paul Leventhal, president of the Nuclear Control Institute.
But most experts accept such sentiments afford little comfort. Now the focus of dealing with North Korea has become working out what sort of nuclear devices North Korea might possess and how it could deliver them. Though it has no missiles that could reach America, South Korea lies just over the border. Tokyo is just a short flight over the Sea of Japan. It could easily use a plane or a boat to deliver a nuclear device.
That could see the triggering of a regional nuclear arms race in Asia, a continent already scarred by the nuclear standoff between Indian and Pakistan. With North Korea boasting a nuclear arsenal, South Korea is under enormous pressure to follow suit as a deterrent. Japan too could see nuclear weapons as its only insurance against assault. With its hi-tech economy many people believe Japan could develop weapons in a matter of weeks or months, not years.
But if this happens then China, motivated by longstanding fears over its advanced neighbour, will likely move to increase its own nuclear weapons arsenal and develop more advanced delivery systems. Suddenly, the nuclear club will start to look very crowded.
Certainly Iran appears to want to join despite intensive diplomacy from a trio of European nations. Many experts put that down to a failure of US policy. Iran’s leaders have looked at the contrasting fates of Iraq, which was invaded for weapons it did not have, and North Korea, which has confessed to developing nuclear weapons and now appears immune to any military threat. With the Bush administration openly bent on ‘regime change’ in Iran, the safest route for the country’s reigning mullahs seems obvious. ‘Iran has learned that lesson. They want to go the North Korea route, not the Iraq route,’ Goldring said.
Nuclear Brinksmanship in the Middle East
That has led to a dangerous game of brinkmanship in a Middle East destined to become a theatre of conflict where nuclear weapons are suddenly a real possibility. Israel already has the bomb. Iran, surrounded by American allies and soldiers, wants it too. Some experts think it is too late to stop Iran from going nuclear, no matter how many official denials Tehran puts out about its intentions. Others believe there is still hope. ‘We need to make a concerted effort and engage with the process,’ said Peter Pella, a former proliferation expert at the US State Department.
The Bush administration is taking an opposite tack. In an international version of ‘good cop, bad cop’ European nations are holding discussions with Iran about its nuclear programme, while the US makes hostile noises. Few experts failed to notice Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s recent remarks that attacking Iran was ‘…not on the agenda at this point’. That has some US hawks on the Iranian situation delighted. ‘We need a stick to use,’ said Leventhal. ‘The Europeans will have heard the ‘not on the agenda’ part, but the Iranians will have head the ‘at this point’ part.’
Whatever the approach, few believe that the Iranian nuclear issue is anything but a potentially catastrophic powder keg. If Iran pushes ahead, then Israel could launch strikes against possible nuclear facilities, just as it did in Iraq in the 1980s. Such a move could easily ignite a major war across the region. The crisis is brewing to a boil and no real solution is yet in sight.
But the nuclear threat of the 21st century comes from terrorist groups, not just rogue states. It is no longer governments who are the most likely to spread nukes or the technology to make them. And it is no longer states who are most likely to use them.
Al-Qaeda and the A-Bomb
Militants such as Osama bin Laden have said that they would use nuclear weapons. Al-Qaeda are known to have acquired plans for the manufacture of nuclear arms. Intelligence services know meetings occurred between al-Qaeda representatives and nuclear scientists before 11 September. Islamic militants have since negotiated to buy what they thought was weapons-grade uranium from criminals.
‘The intent is there,’ said one Western intelligence source. ‘The question is whether any militant organisation – particularly one that is being chased by the most powerful nation in the world – could build the facilities to create and weaponise a nuclear armament, even some kind of “suitcase bomb” style device. The answer is “probably no”.’
Instead, most experts agree, the main threat comes from a basic radiological device – or dirty bomb. This would be a conventional bomb laced with radioactive material – perhaps only an element from a hospital x-ray machine.
According to a report to be published next week by the British American Security Information Council, the radiological impact of a dirty bomb is uncertain. In 1987 the Iraqi army tested a large radiological bomb for possible use in the Iran-Iraq war, but abandoned the plan because the radiation levels produced were not considered high enough. But dirty bombs do have two advantages for terrorists. First, they could cause widespread panic and chaos. Second, the cost of the cleanup, and the implications of having large parts of a city centre rendered unusable, would be massive.
Pakistan: Sponsor of Nuclear Terror
There are also fears that North Korea or Iran may give nuclear technology to militants, or rogue scientists selling secrets or nuclear materials. A recent example is that of Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear programme, who reportedly made himself a fortune of more than $400m in a 15 year career of selling nuclear secrets to North Korea, Libya and, quite possibly, Iran.
Working through scores of offshore accounts and cut-out companies, Khan’s network stretched from South Africa to Morocco to Singapore. Turkish and Malaysian workshops made parts for centrifuges, Italian factories made furnaces, a German supplier provided vacuum pumps. Though the CIA have claimed they had penetrated the network, it is still thought Khan was able to visit North Korea more than a dozen times to swap Pakistani centrifuge technology for local missile know-how, pass uranium enrichment technology to Iran and to give Libya blue prints for a bomb.
There are dangers everywhere. Many fear General Pervaiz Musharraf’s pro-Western government in Pakistan, which already has the bomb, could be replaced by a harder line Islamic regime. And there are problems with former Soviet stocks. Russia alone has hundreds of metric tonnes of weapons grade materials such as enriched uranium. The prospect of a nuclear attack by terrorists on a Western city is more possible now than at any time. ‘If a nuclear weapon went off in a city somewhere, it would not surprise me at all,’ said Leventhal.
It is not all doom and gloom. Libya has come in from the diplomatic cold, giving up its nuclear ambitions. And there is now little possibility of a nuclear-armed Iraq threatening the Middle East.
But in general the situation looks bleak. It has been more than 30 years since the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was created. It was designed to discourage nations from developing nuclear weapons in return for access to nuclear power and an obligation on behalf of the big powers to work towards nuclear disarmament.
The treaty will be reviewed this May in New York at a time when it seems no one is abiding by it. It is likely that the issue of Iran will dominate the meeting. One senior Western European diplomat told The Observer the atmosphere was likely to be ‘poisoned’ by the acrimonious debate over policy towards Tehran.
‘It is a treaty concerned not only with stopping the further spread of nukes but also about their complete elimination,’ said Dr Stephen Pullinger, of Saferworld, an independent foreign affairs think tank. ‘Instead, it is clear that none of the five declared nuclear states are thinking about abandoning their nukes for the foreseeable future.’ As Iran and North Korea stand in the dock in May it may well be worth remembering the Non-Proliferation was meant to work both ways.
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