Let’s Get Serious About Nuclear Proliferation

Flynt L. Leverett and
Flynt L. Leverett Senior Fellow, The Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings
Samuel R. Berger

March 3, 2004

America needs to lead

President George W. Bush pledged in a speech Feb. 11 that America would “rise to the hard demands of dangerous times”—specifically, to prevent the world’s deadliest weapons from falling into the hands of rogue regimes and terrorists. The president’s attention to nonproliferation issues is welcome, as is Libya’s apparent renunciation of weapons of mass destruction. Yet a sustained and comprehensive strategy for dealing with the proliferation threat is still lacking.

We are losing the fight to stop the spread of nuclear-weapons capabilities to rogue states. In too many places, the approach to proliferation challenges is curiously complacent—marked by an inability to translate rhetoric into action.

Recent events have underscored the risk of nuclear breakout. The deal brokered by three European foreign ministers with Tehran last autumn is not stopping Iran’s development of an infrastructure that could ultimately produce weapons-grade fissile material for nuclear bombs. Worse, Iran’s foreign minister said twice last week that Tehran intends to sell nuclear fuel abroad.

The European approach is based on two premises: first, that Iran’s nuclear program is motivated primarily by nationalist ambitions to achieve world-class technological prowess; and second, that Tehran would ultimately relinquish the militarily applicable parts of its program in exchange for international assistance in developing the rest of its nuclear agenda. Unfortunately, this represents more wishful thinking than reality. Compelling evidence suggests Iran’s nuclear program is intended to give Tehran a nuclear-weapons hedge against what Iranians see as very real threats to their national security, and that Iran will not give up its nuclear aspirations until those concerns are addressed. Yet, the Bush administration stubbornly resists any suggestion of a “grand bargain” with Iran.

As for North Korea, Kim Jong Il has clearly slipped the bonds of the nonproliferation regime. Analysts may debate the number of nuclear bombs North Korea has built, but it is virtually certain that Pyongyang possesses considerably more reprocessed plutonium today than a year ago, on its way to potentially becoming the first nuclear weapons Wal-Mart for terror groups. Given this reality, the Bush administration’s dithering on serious diplomatic engagement is inexplicable.

Recent disclosures about the activities of the Pakistani nuclear scientist and proliferation entrepreneur Abdul Qadeer Khan underscore additional risks. We know there are sophisticated clandestine procurement networks for nuclear fuels and technology. Yet the administration remains complacent in securing loose nuclear materials around the world and redirecting weapons scientists and assets to peaceful, constructive purposes.

The Nunn-Lugar initiative is designed to dismantle or transform potentially dangerous nuclear activities in the former Soviet Union. At present funding levels, it will not complete the job for more than a decade. Meanwhile, as Senator Sam Nunn has said, right now, “tons of poorly secured plutonium and highly enriched uranium—the raw materials of nuclear terrorism—are spread around the world.”

What would a serious strategy for containing the spread of nuclear weapons look like?

First, it is time to define clear strategic choices for Iran and North Korea. Washington should publicly offer to normalize relations with Iran—including a commitment not to change its government by force—and help it integrate into the global economy, provided that Iran gives up, definitively and verifiably, its weapons of mass destruction programs and ties to terrorist organizations.

The United States also should lay out for North Korea the security guarantees and economic benefits it could expect for dismantling its nuclear weapons program and abandoning its nuclear ambitions—as well as make clear that further separation of plutonium will result in serious consequences, coercive if necessary. Only by defining North Korea’s options in such stark terms, and demonstrating our willingness to get to Yes, can the United States marshal the regional and international support we will need if Pyongyang says No.

Second, we must deal with the crisis of unsecured nuclear materials around the world. We must globalize Nunn-Lugar programs and fund them at the levels necessary to do the job, which will be much greater than the administration’s current budget envisions.

Third, it is time to close increasingly obvious gaps in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The president’s proposals are fine as far as they go, but they do not go far enough. Tighter regulation of fuel cycle activities, keeping states under investigation by the International Atomic Energy Agency off the agency’s board of governors, and mandating implementation of the Additional Protocol as a condition for nuclear imports are all essential steps. But we also need to make sure that if states provide assistance to others for peaceful nuclear energy, spent fuel rods are returned to international storage, under international supervision.

Further, we need to make it illegal for a state to withdraw from the nonproliferation treaty if its nuclear activities are under investigation. America should lead the UN Security Council in defining sanctions that would be imposed automatically on any state threatening to use the treaty as a springboard for nuclear weapons development.

As Bush stated Feb. 11, the consensus among nations that proliferation is intolerable “means little unless it is translated into action.” But translating counter proliferation goals into action will take sustained American leadership and engagement, skillful diplomacy, and serious investments of political and financial capital. None of those have been forthcoming so far.