Optimism Turns to Anxiety On Curbing Nuclear Arms

By Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 3, 2006

In the waning days of the 20th century, nearly a dozen countries abandoned nuclear weapons programs, betting on the promised security of a post-Cold War world.

But the trend toward disarmament seems to have tapered off almost as quickly as it began.

In the first six years of the 21st century, one country -- Libya -- agreed to give up the possibility of making a weapon. But North Korea accelerated its program, and many believe Iran is doing the same. More countries are exploring uranium enrichment and nuclear power programs that could be diverted to produce weapons.

Officials and nuclear experts who felt nothing but optimism in the early 1990s now see a world on the threshold of a dangerous arms race. Some fault the Bush administration for policies that rewarded nuclear-armed friends while denouncing foes accused of building the same weapons. Others say the current situation is a natural byproduct of a fragmented world in which countries no longer have to choose between the United States and the Soviet Union, but can go separate ways and build independent alliances.

"I think we are at a dangerous tipping point," said Sam Nunn, the former Democratic senator from Georgia who has devoted years of public service to stemming nuclear proliferation and is co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative. "One of the reasons we're in this predicament is that the United States government, which had been the main proponent of nonproliferation, appears not to have the clout to build the kind of broad international coalition that dissuades countries from going nuclear."

Since President Dwight D. Eisenhower began Atoms for Peace in 1953, the United States has been at the forefront of nonproliferation strategies, talking friend and adversary alike out of weapons that bring great power but carry the risk of deep isolation. "In the last two decades, the U.S. has successfully turned around a host of states -- Argentina, Brazil, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus, South Africa, Taiwan and South Korea," said Ashton B. Carter, who was assistant secretary of defense for international security policy from 1993 to 1996. "But in the last few years," Carter said, Iran and North Korea "have been allowed to lurch forward."

President Bush in 2002 named Iran, North Korea and Iraq under Saddam Hussein as members of an "axis of evil" pursuing weapons of mass destruction that could be given to terrorists. The prospect of the most dangerous weapons getting into the hands of the most dangerous people led Bush to war in Iraq against a suspected arsenal he did not find.

Meanwhile, Iran and North Korea expanded their nuclear capabilities. Last month, North Korea officially became a nuclear weapons state when it detonated a small plutonium bomb during an underground test. It is Iran, however, that the Bush administration named earlier this year as posing the greatest challenge to the United States. It is a worry shared by many policymakers and politicians outside the government, but it is not the only nuclear concern.

In the 1960s, nonproliferation was one of the few areas on which there was agreement between the United States and what was then the Soviet Union. France, Britain, China and, experts believe, Israel had joined the nuclear club, and while the Cold War rivals were in the midst of their own arms race, they were also eager to prevent more states from acquiring nuclear weapons.

President John F. Kennedy worried in 1963 that if U.S. efforts were unsuccessful, there could be as many as 10 nuclear weapons states within a decade and the number could double after that. Today there are nine such states. But there would have been more had South Africa, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Belarus not been among the countries that gave up nuclear weapons after the breakup in 1991 of the Soviet Union.

Michael Levi, a nuclear scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a unique moment for nonproliferation, but that "the Cold War isn't going to end every 10 years."

"If you focus on nuclear testing as a benchmark, then you've got three nuclear states in the last eight years -- India, Pakistan and North Korea. But if you go by acquiring nuclear weapons, it would be one a decade," Levi said, referring to North Korea.

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