June 27, 2003 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Halting Proliferation

The only thing worse than one nuclear-armed rogue nation is two. But Iran is well on its way to joining North Korea as the world's newest nuclear nightmare.

This is hardly shocking. President Bush didn't dub Tehran a charter member of the Axis of Evil by chance.

The international community's response to the threat? The U.N.'s nuclear weapons watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has called upon Tehran, "to promptly and unconditionally conclude and implement an additional protocol to its Safeguards Agreement, in order to enhance the agency's ability to provide credible assurances regarding the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear activities."

It took the 35-member IAEA board of governors three days of intense debate to hammer out that conclusion. The mullahs must be shaking in their robes.

Actually, considering the IAEA's record with the nuclear programs of North Korea (couldn't stop it) and Iraq pre-Gulf War I (couldn't find it), Iran's clerics most likely didn't even shift in their seats on hearing the IAEA's verdict.

The sad truth is that existing, U.N.-centered agreements on preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), are proving ineffective. The danger is spreading.

The 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) is instructive. The NPT, which bans nuclear programs for other than peaceful purposes, is essentially a gentleman's agreement-with no enforcement provisions. Nations routinely ignore its principles if they conflict with the country's perception of its national interests.

 - Iran, an NPT signatory, insists it is in compliance but is secretly pursuing nukes, while thwarting IAEA inspectors.

 - North Korea admitted to a U.S. diplomat last year that it had nuclear weapons while still a member of the NPT. (It has since withdrawn.)

 - India and Pakistan, which joined the nuclear club in 1998, never signed the treaty. Neither did --

 - Israel, a suspected nuclear power.

 - Libya and Syria, both signatories, still flirt with nuclear status.

Bottom line: Neither the NPT, nor any other current U.N. arms-control treaty, such as the Biological Weapons or Chemical Weapons Conventions, can stop a determined nation from pursuing WMD.

Even more frightening is the prospect of WMD in the clutches of shadowy terrorists. Yet North Korea has threatened to transfer nukes to others. Tehran, for its part, is in bed with the likes of Hamas, Hezbollah and possibly al-Qaeda -- a very dangerous combination.

At the recent G-8 summit in Evian, France, world leaders agreed that the spread of unconventional weapons and international terrorism are "the pre-eminent threat to international security."

Thankfully, the Bush administration is actually doing something about it. Last month in Krakow, the president unveiled the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), an effort to get like-minded nations to work together outside the flagging U.N. nonproliferation regimes.

The proposal would allow the interception of ships and aircraft carrying WMD, missiles or enabling technology and materiel in a cooperative country's territorial seas, airspace, and land.

"Over time, we will extend this partnership as broadly as possible to keep the world's most destructive weapons away from our shores and out of the hands of our enemies," John Bolton, undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, told Congress earlier this month.

Not wasting any time, 12 nations (the United States, Canada, Britain, Italy, Japan, Australia, France, Germany, Poland, Portugal, the Netherlands and Spain) met in Madrid this month to begin discussions on the PSI. The Aussies, Brits, Spaniards and Poles are reportedly already on board.

The PSI would require beefed-up intelligence and law-enforcement cooperation, improved export-control efforts, creative use of national sovereignty and multilateral agreement on the definition of contraband. This will require adjustments to international law -- which, for example, does not now ban the transfer of missiles.

That means missiles found in international waters can't be legally seized as contraband. This is why the North Korean SCUD missiles, seized by the Spanish en route to Yemen on a Cambodian-flagged ship last year, were ultimately released.

The PSI is also likely to ruffle the feathers of the Chinese and the Russians, who are considered key suppliers of WMD and missile technology and know-how to North Korea and Iran. But systems that rely on self-restraint won't stop countries that don't want to restrain themselves.

The United Nations' honorable efforts to curb the proliferation of WMD fall short because they are toothless -- and therefore feckless.

We should be eager to work with other concerned nations to stop the spread of WMD. The PSI is not a substitute for diplomacy. But a more vigorous, enforceable nonproliferation policy, which includes the concept of interdiction, is needed. The PSI is a long overdue and a much-needed move in the right direction.

Peter Brookes, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense, is a senior fellow for national security affairs at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Appeared on CNSNews.com