If corrective actions aren’t taken immediately, the world will witness a nuclear arms race resulting in a world with more nuclear weapons states and more nuclear weapons and fissile material sought by rogue states and terrorists. Thus, the danger of stumbling into accidental nuclear conflict or a terrorist group acquiring fissile material for a dirty bomb will become more of a security threat to all nations.
The Treaty of the Non-Proliferation of nuclear weapons (NPT), signed by 191 countries in 1968 that included the five nuclear weapons states, was established to prevent the spread of atomic weapons and weapons technology and cooperate in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and nuclear disarmament. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) established and implemented a safeguard system to ensure compliance with treaty obligations.
In 2010, former President Barack Obama hosted the first Nuclear Security Summit in Washington D.C., with 47 nation-states attending, led by 38 heads of state. This and three subsequent summits – in Seoul, The Hague, and Washington D.C. – were convened to discuss measures to secure vulnerable nuclear materials and address nuclear terrorism.
The recent death of Abdul Qadeer Khan, the architect of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb program and who was under house arrest in Pakistan, is a stark reminder that even one person, with knowledge and access, can be a serial nuclear proliferator. In the late 1980s and 1990s, A.Q. Khan provided Iran with P-1 and P-2 centrifuges, blueprints and components for its enrichment facility in Natanz. He provided North Korea and Libya with centrifuges, training and manuals for its enrichment programs. Libya eventually abandoned its pursuit of nuclear weapons in return for international legitimacy and normalized relations with the United Kingdom and the U.S. North Korea and Iran persisted with their Highly Enriched Uranium programs for nuclear weapons.
Currently, North Korea has conducted six nuclear tests. It reportedly has an inventory of between 40 and 60 nuclear weapons, based on the reprocessing of spent fuel rods for Plutonium and enriched uranium. North Korea was the only country to quit the NPT – in 2003 – and is reported to have provided Syria with training, materials, and assistance in constructing a plutonium reactor in Al-Kabir. Israel bombed this facility in September 2007, just prior to its going operational.
Iran was pursuing a nuclear weapons program until 2003 and in 2015 signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with China, France, Germany, the U.K. and the U.S., committing Iran to halt numerous nuclear programs for a certain period, to be verified by the IAEA. Iran, however, has breached the accord several times, restricting IAEA inspectors’ access to some of their declared or suspect nuclear facilities. The U.S. quit the JCPOA in 2018 and is currently in negotiations with Iran to re-enter the agreement.
The immediate concern is that if North Korea is permitted to retain its nuclear weapons, other states in the region, like South Korea, Japan and others, eventually may seek their own nuclear weapons capability, despite U.S. extended deterrence commitments. And if Iran, a nuclear weapons threshold state that pursued nuclear weapons until 2003, decides to acquire nuclear weapons, then countries in the region like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt will also pursue their own nuclear weapons capabilities, despite the U.S. extended deterrence commitments. And given that Al Qaeda had sought nuclear weapons and fissile material for dirty bombs to attack the west, it’s incumbent upon us to ensure that nuclear weapons and fissile materials are secure and protected from terrorists.
Separately but related, the U.S. and Russia recently signed a five-year extension (to February 2026) to the New Start Arms Reduction Treaty that commits both countries to 1,550 deployed nuclear weapons; 700 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs); deployed submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and deployed heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments. The treaty does not include non-deployed nuclear weapons or tactical nuclear weapons. Efforts to get China to join New Start have failed. China reportedly has an ambitious nuclear weapons program that reportedly has over 300 nuclear weapons. Recent media reports state that China is constructing at least 250 new long-range missile silos at as many as three locations, fueling speculation that it plans to substantially expand its nuclear weapons arsenal.
The fragility of New Start, given that it does not include tactical missiles or non-deployed nuclear weapons, and that China is not participating in this arms reduction treaty are issues of concern.
Also of concern are the new technologies that could challenge missile defense programs. Indeed, recent developments with hypersonic missiles and low flying cruise missiles are potential challenges to missile defense systems that play a critical deterrence role.
Working to acquire an agreement for the complete and verifiable denuclearization of North Korea is of paramount importance. If unsuccessful, other countries in the region will seek their own nuclear weapons. And getting Iran to commit to IAEA inspections to prove that they will not again pursue nuclear weapons will be necessary if we don’t want a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
And working on getting China to join New Start will be vital if we want a meaningful arms control regime that commits all nuclear weapons states to reduce their arsenal of nuclear weapons.
A nuclear arms race and nuclear proliferation are issues requiring the attention of all countries, especially the nine nuclear weapons states.
• Joseph R. DeTrani was the former special envoy for negotiations with North Korea from 2003-2006 and the former director of the National Counterproliferation Center. The views in this publication are the author’s and do not imply endorsement by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence or any other U.S. government agency.
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