The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohamed El Baradei, warned recently that more than 30 countries could soon have the technological know-how to produce nuclear weapons. As North Korea and Iran push forward with their atomic programs, it seems that going nuclear is becoming fashionable on the international stage.
There are currently five declared nuclear powers (the United States, France, Great Britain, Russia, and China) and two other states known to have nuclear weapons (India and Pakistan). Add in a couple of more countries suspected of having nukes (Israel and North Korea) and the total number of nations known or suspected to have nuclear weapons grows to nine.
The world community has long suspected, and probably rightly so, that Israel possesses an atomic weapons capability, a charge the Israeli government consistently and adamantly denies. North Korea, we now know, has the capability to at least test a nuclear device of some sort. But whether or not the DPRK has the ability to produce an actual atomic weapon, or the ability to deliver a nuclear payload in an attack on another country, is a question still unanswered.
According to El Baradei, many states are developing nuclear technology that is designed for peaceful energy production. The problem, though, is that these programs could quickly and easily be modified to develop atomic weapons.
Iran and Brazil are known to be actively working on uranium enrichment capability, and other countries, including Australia, Argentina, and South Africa are seriously considering programs of their own.
Thirteen more states either have the ability to produce weapons grade uranium, could build the technology to do so, or could use nuclear waste for weapons: Japan, South Korea, Canada, Germany, Sweden, Belgium, Switzerland, Taiwan, Spain, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Lithuania.
Four nations recently announced they were initiating nuclear programs (Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia) and fourteen more have expressed an interest in doing so, either for energy production or in response to regional realities. This group includes Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, Bangladesh, Ghana, Indonesia, Jordan, Namibia, Moldova, Nigeria, Poland, Thailand, Turkey, Vietnam, and Yemen.
Yemen is a known hotbed for terrorists, as is Algeria. Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, though relatively friendly to the United States and the west, are constantly fighting their own internal battles against Islamic fundamentalists. The potential for global nuclear proliferation has never been greater, and the possibility of weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of radicals determined to employ them has never been more real.
The global community, under the auspices of the United Nations, has been completely ineffective at dealing with nuclear programs in unstable countries. Negotiations over Iran's uranium enrichment activities are stalled as Russia and China try to protect their business interests. The economic sanctions resolution against North Korea was repeatedly reworded until it was weak enough to satisfy the DPRK's main trading partner, China, and even then several nations decided to only selectively enforce its provisions.
The simple truth is that not every nation has an absolute right to nuclear technology. The consequences of nuclear abuse are too severe to permit unchecked global proliferation. Until a nation has a stable government that demonstrates its ability to be responsible in the international arena, and in its internal politics, it should be prevented from developing any atomic program, for energy or weapons production.
It is absolutely critical for the world's major powers to confront North Korea and Iran, and to do so immediately and effectively. Neither country has demonstrated that it can be a responsible nuclear power, and neither country can be counted on to refrain from providing other rogue nations with nuclear technology.
There is no question that Kim Jong-Il's cash-starved government would sell nuclear technology to any national government or transnational group willing to pay for it. Such sales would provide the North Korean dictatorship with the resources it needs to further insulate itself from a discontented population.
The Iranians, on the other hand, would probably use nuclear technology to dominate the Middle East. The Persian nation's quest for regional hegemony is quickly becoming a reality, as Iran asserts its influence with Hezbollah against Israel and with the Shiite masses in Iraq, all the while taunting the United Nations and the west with its continued defiance over its nuclear program. But the potential for nuclear technology transfer from Iran cannot be discounted, either for political or economic reasons. Iran's loyalties lie with whoever will help in the quest for regional dominance.
Both North Korea and Iran must be stopped before it is too late. The United States has taken the lead in countering both countries, but the problem does not belong to the United States alone. Other nations must step up and act like the responsible global players they claim to be. Membership in the nuclear club must be selective and limited to those nations who can use the technology in a safe and responsible manner. Going nuclear is a privilege, not a right. And the sooner the major powers of the world recognize that fact, and take action to support it, the better off the world will be.