The Spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction

Remarks at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee Conference in Washington D.C.

I am pleased to be able to speak to this distinguished forum, and to say a few words about the spread of mass destruction weapons. I will try to present an overview of what is going on in the world without entirely ruining your day. I fact, I would like to start with some good news.

For the time being at least, we don’t have to worry about Iraq and Libya. Whatever threat there was from mass destruction weapons in Iraq has been ended, for now. Libya has given up its weapon programs too, and has even ratted on its suppliers, which is helping us in other countries. Libya is a real victory. So, there are two tough cases that we don’t have to worry about any more. This is definitely good news. Unfortunately, there are two even tougher cases that we still do have to worry about: Iran and North Korea. Beyond them, there are no countries on the near horizon. Syria may have dreams, but no prospect of nuclear weapons in the near term. Pakistan, India, and Israel are already nuclear weapon states.

Now for the bad news, starting with Iran. Just about everybody who has looked at Iran’s nuclear program believes Iran is going for the bomb. Its efforts to enrich uranium, and to build heavy water reactors, make no sense for a civilian nuclear power program, even if it needed such a program, which it doesn’t, because of its oil reserves.

How close is Iran? It is unclear. There is evidence that Iran may already have made a lot of progress in enriching uranium in secret. Inspectors have found traces of enriched uranium in Iran that have not been explained—so secret enrichment is a risk. We are probably looking at two or so years.

What are Iran’s options? There are at least three, and probably four:

First, the Libya model, which is to get rid of all the plants that can make nuclear weapon fuel. This one is unlikely, given the momentum of the effort so far. Second, there is the North Korea model: drop out of the non-proliferation treaty and tell the world to take a hike. This is unlikely as well. Iran does not want to be a pariah. Third, the Iraq model: practice deception, which seems to be the model in use now. Try to deceive the international inspectors, play for time, and hide secret activities. Fourth, a new model: be honest with the inspectors, and develop a big successful nuclear program inside the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. This would allow Iran to avoid international punishment, while creating the ability to “break out” of the treaty and make the bomb quickly whenever Iran chose. Time will tell which of these options Iran will choose.

And now let us look at North Korea.

North Korea is assumed to have enough plutonium for about eight nuclear bombs; soon it will be able to make a lot more. This means that North Korea could become a bomb merchant, and may have already done so as far as we know.

Iran has been buying missiles from North Korea. Why not plutonium, with which it could make nuclear weapons? Or, why not finished warheads? I don’t have an answer to that one, besides which our problems in Iraq, however grave, look manageable. It could be that the timeline for Iran could be much shorter than we think.

And then there are the terrorists and smugglers: here again there is good news and bad news.

It is unlikely that a terrorist group could build a nuclear weapon from scratch. Making the plutonium or highly enriched uranium would be too difficult. The danger is that a terrorist group might be able to buy or be given the plutonium or highly enriched uranium, or even buy or be given a finished bomb. So far as we know, it has not happened yet, but the risk gets greater in proportion to the number of bomb-producing countries. That is why the North Korean and Iranian bomb programs are so frightening. They are increasing the possible number of sales offices for terrorists. That is why the world gets safer when the number of nuclear weapon states goes down.

Overall, what is the worldwide threat today? Looking around the world, we see the following:

Egypt, Syria and Iran can all target Israel with chemical or high-explosive warheads on missiles. Certainly many hundreds of these missiles and possibly as many as a thousand could be targeted on Israel. Israel, in turn, can target all of these countries with the same, plus nuclear warheads. These nuclear warheads number in the low hundreds and are sufficient to destroy every target in the Middle East. India and Pakistan can target each other with scores of nuclear warheads on both missiles and aircraft. India’s expanding nuclear capability will cover China soon and may cover the entire world within the next decade (India is hoping to deploy submarines with nuclear missiles). Iran will achieve nuclear weapon status in a few years unless someone intervenes. Iran will also continue to develop its missile program. North Korea may continue to produce nuclear weapon material and may even begin to export it. Virtually all of this capability will have been built with imports, and will continue to be developed with imports. So export controls will be a great tool for slowing it down, and so will an effective intelligence organization. We do not have the latter, and without it, the former does not do us much good.