- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 14, 2008

As long as superpowers held the monopoly on nuclear technology, the perils associated with nuclear weapons were minimal, despite the Cold War and one or two crises when the nuclear codes were almost activated.

But now we are entering a new era of post-nuclear exclusivity, where non-nation entities are seeking to obtain weapons of mass destruction, not for the purpose of deterrence, but rather with specific intent to cause maximum damage and casualties.

Since the Soviet Union acquired the atomic bomb shortly after the United States at the end of World War II, a number of other countries strived to join that exclusive club. The belief was - and partially remains - that possessing a nuclear arsenal is enough of a deterrent. No mad dictator would be adventurous enough to attack another country armed with nuclear weapons.

In other words, nuclear bombs acted as a very effective defensive tool. At least in theory.

That was the view adopted by other nuclear countries - China, France and Britain. India and Pakistan, eternal enemies in southwestern Asia, also developed nuclear-strike capabilities. Again, the intent was not to use them against each other, rather to hope they would serve as a deterrence.

The Islamic Republic of Iran realized this fact only too well during the eight-year war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the 1980s, but that realization came only after nearly 500,000 Iranian soldiers were killed in conventional fighting. Iraq lost an equal number of soldiers.

Other countries followed suit: North Korea spent money and resources that it didn’t have to develop nuclear technology, fearful that the United States and South Korea would try to overthrow the reclusive and over-paranoid regime in Pyongyang.

Libya admitted to having invested in trying to develop a bomb with North Korean help. But spooked by the U.S. invasion of Iraq and nudged on by Moammar Gadhafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, Libya turned over its bomb-making kit to the U.S. in exchange for better relations with Washington. It worked. Libya has stopped trying to blow planes out of the sky, and just this month, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flew to Tripoli to meet with Col. Gadhafi.

And finally, Israel and South Africa have never officially admitted to being in possession of nuclear bombs, but the fact is hardly a secret to anyone. South Africa voluntarily dismantled its program under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency after apartheid was ended, getting rid of two evils in the same decade. Israel, the only nuclear country in the Middle East, continues to stay silent about its program based in Dimona, in the southern part of the country.

But would any country in possession of nuclear arms today truly be in danger of attack if it were to get rid of its nuclear weapons? This is the question George Perkovich and James M. Acton ask in the latest issue of the Adelphi Paper, published by the London International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Mr. Perkovich is vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and director of its nonproliferation program. Mr. Acton is a physicist by training and lectures at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London.

The authors point out that, indeed, “none of today’s nuclear-armed states would fall prey to major aggression if they all eliminated their nuclear arsenals.”

True, chances of any of the three NATO nuclear countries - the U.S., Britain and France - coming under attack from another state is highly improbable.

The same can be said of Russia and China. And if India and Pakistan manage to retain cool heads despite their differences and their border disputes, that part of the world would certainly be safer. As for North Korea, no one is seriously going to attack it.

When it comes to nuclear weapons today, the real danger stems not from the countries possessing them and (the next part of this sentence is bound to raise a storm of protest) not even from “rogue” countries such as Iran and other would-be members of the “axis of evil.”

Assuming for a moment that Iran were to develop nuclear weapons and assuming that the ayatollahs were mad enough to use them - which they are not - the rulers of Tehran know full well that they would not be around long enough to watch the fireball on their television sets, as Iran would cease to exist.

The real concern today lies in efforts by terrorist groups to acquire weapons of mass destruction: chemical, biological and, mostly, nuclear.

Brian Michael Jenkins, who has just released a book titled “Will Terrorists Go Nuclear?” writes, “There is no doubt that the idea of nuclear weapons may appeal to terrorists.”

Alas, it is that new threat that ultimately will prevent the abolishment of nuclear weapons, at least not until the threat of nuclear terrorism dissipates. And that may be a few years yet.

The nuclear genie has been let out of the bottle; the difficult task is how to entice it back in and forever seal it tight.

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