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US Experts Address Nuclear Proliferation, Terrorism
Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Robert G. Joseph described what could happen if Iran ever developed nuclear weapons. (Photo by Todd Cheney/UCLA Photo )

US Experts Address Nuclear Proliferation, Terrorism

Nuclear terrorism threatens to wreck nuclear peace, which has lasted 61 years despite the presence of tens of thousands of nuclear missiles around the world, noted Nobel laureate Tom Schelling, one of the key speakers at the conference.

The latest change is that there is no talk of enriching uranium but of the right to enrich uranium.

This article was first published in UCLA Today Online.

By Ajay Singh

IMAGINE YOU'RE on your way to work — or relaxing at home — and a nuclear device explodes somewhere in the nation. Instantly reminiscent of 9/11, the attack would almost certainly result in an American nuclear strike against the suspected aggressor.

"God help whoever's on the other side," said Robert Powell, a UC Berkeley professor of political science, who raised that all-too-plausible scenario at a recent public conference on nuclear weapons at UCLA. "Nine/11 led to Iraq," he noted. "Can you imagine how little evidence it would take this time around to prompt a massive U.S. response?"

Titled "Nuclear Weapons in a New Century: Facing the Emerging Challenges," the well-attended conference March 6-7 at Covel Commons was organized by the Ronald W. Burkle Center for International Relations and co-hosted by Gen. Wesley K. Clark (Ret.), a fellow at the center, and Kal Raustiala, its director.

Nuclear terrorism threatens to wreck nuclear peace, which has lasted 61 years despite the presence of tens of thousands of nuclear missiles around the world, noted Nobel laureate Tom Schelling, one of the key speakers at the conference. ("The most spectacular event of the past half century is the one that did not occur," Schelling wrote when he accepted the Nobel Prize for economics in 2005.)

Any act of nuclear terrorism anywhere in the world would lead to "a series of retaliatory, preemptive, completely unpredictable responses," predicted Brian Jenkins, a UCLA alumnus who is senior adviser to the president of the RAND Corp. and a leading authority on terrorism.

The prospect of nuclear terrorism is closely connected with nuclear proliferation, a decades-old problem that, as one of the conference's major themes, was dominated by discussions centering on Iran's and North Korea's drive to become nuclear powers.

"A nuclear-armed Iran is intolerable," remarked Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Robert G. Joseph in his keynote address. "Iran supports terrorism, undercuts prospects for peace between Lebanon and Israel, and wants to wipe Israel off the map." Joseph added that both Iran and North Korea were bent on developing atomic weapons at a time when a growing number of countries want nuclear weapons. "If we fail in Iran, it provides the stage for further proliferation," he warned.

Recently, however, there have been signs that Washington's threat of force against Iran, coupled with multilateral diplomatic efforts to persuade its regime to rein in its rhetoric and adventurism, is causing Tehran to rethink its nuclear ambitions.

"The latest change is that there is no talk of enriching uranium but of the right to enrich uranium," said Abbas Milani, director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University. "That's setting the stage for precisely the kind of negotiations that should happen — and the only setback to this process would be an attack on Iran. It will do for the regime what it wants from the nuclear program: its self-preservation."

The Bush administration, which earned kudos for successfully persuading Libya to give up its nuclear program, is also spearheading an effort by the United Nations Security Council and Germany to impose financial sanctions on Iran, Joseph explained. At the same time, the U.S. is working with several Persian Gulf states to include both countries in a U.S.-led security relationship, he explained.

Similarly, immediately after North Korea conducted a provocative nuclear test last October, the U.S. reaffirmed its commitment of nuclear protection to Japan, which was "very reassuring to the Japanese," Joseph observed. That, in turn, "reassured China because China is concerned about Japan going nuclear."

No silver bullet can stop nuclear proliferation, Joseph said, but "each one plays an important role." For example, he explained, when the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism met in Ankara last month, representatives discussed ways to provide nuclear fuel for energy purposes to nations that give up their option to enrich uranium, an essential ingredient in making atomic bombs.

One area of grave concern is the selling of fissile material, which can be used to make "radioactive dispersal devices," or "dirty bombs," on the nuclear black market. In 2005, the International Atomic Energy Agency uncovered 103 incidents — an average of one every three weeks — of fissile material trafficking on the black market, Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick told conference participants.

Some U.S.-led multilateral sting operations to catch both buyers and sellers in this murky underworld are already underway, said RAND's Jenkins. "We have to move from absolute prevention to deterrence by identifying terrorist plots and making them as difficult as possible to carry out."

Much of that work will fall on the government that succeeds the Bush administration next year. One of its priorities should be to intensify efforts to combat the spread of fissile material, said Joseph Cirincione, vice president for national security at the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C., think tank. The fissile material market, said Cirincione, is "the ultimate preventable nuclear catastrophe," using the words of Harvard nuclear expert Graham Allison. The United States spends $1 billion a year tackling fissile material — "we spend that every three days in Iraq," Cirincione said, adding: "We have the prevention programs in place [and] the people who know how to implement them — all we lack are the resources and the presidential will."

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