Since we completed our book manuscript, Preventing Catastrophe: The Use and Misuse of Intelligence in Efforts to Halt the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction, in early April, threats have continued to abound. The Iranian nuclear program is proceeding apace amidst political instability, and North Korea conducted a second nuclear explosive test and is preparing another new long range missile test. However on the positive side, President Obama presented a far reaching arms control/nonproliferation speech in Prague on the same day as the earlier North Korean missile test, and the United States and Russia have begun the process of negotiating a new START Treaty to include deeper reductions, to replace the present more modest START Treaty which expires by its terms in December, 2009, unless renewed.
On June 12, the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohammed El Baradei, in a BBC interview said he believed that Iran's leaders wanted the technology to build nuclear weapons in order to send a message to the world. Iran presently is convulsed by powerful protests following the disputed Presidential election on June 12 which may threaten the viability of the Islamic Republic itself. While the people of Iran can only be admired and commended for demanding their rights against an increasingly authoritarian and arbitrary regime, the nuclear program is continuing and it may be difficult, under the present circumstances, for any negotiation with Iran on this subject to be possible.
North Korea has just about gone off the rails. The United Nations Security Council condemned the DPRK for the missile launch which was in violation of an earlier Security Council resolution. In retaliation, North Korea withdrew from the Six Party talks, announced the restart of its nuclear reactor to produce additional plutonium, carried out a second nuclear test in the low kiloton range, and asserted that it would never give up its nuclear weapons.† In response to the nuclear weapon test, on June 12 the Security Council unanimously adopted broad new sanctions against the DPRK, including the right to board its vessels on the high seas (force was not authorized) as there was concern that North Korea might attempt to sell nuclear technology or material as well as missile technology abroad.† In response to the UNís sanction resolution, North Korea hinted it might carry out a third nuclear test as well as test an intercontinental ballistic missile.† It also announced that it will seek nuclear weapons through an uranium enrichment program in addition to its current plutonium production program.
In late May, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Provisional Secretariat in Vienna, Austria, announced that seismic stations in its International Monitoring System had detected an event that equated to the announced North Korean nuclear explosion on May 25.† On June 15, in Washington the Office of the Director of National Intelligence confirmed that North Korea probably had conducted an underground nuclear explosion.† And as a new long range missile test by the DPRK apparently drew nearer in late June, the U.S. Defense Department announced the deployment of missile defense systems in Hawaii.
The international community has long believed that the DPRKís nuclear weapon program is largely bargaining material to get what the DPRK wants from the United States, e.g. diplomatic recognition, security assurances, civil nuclear power, etc. These recent developments, however, suggest a darker objective; to become recognized as a nuclear weapon state. There is no immediate threat to the continental United States, although the DPRKís longest-range missile might reach Alaska and Hawaii. Experts say that the development by the DPRK of a ballistic missile that could reach the U.S. West Coast is three to five years away, and the development of a nuclear weapon that could be delivered by such a missile is further away than that. Nevertheless the threat to Japan could develop far sooner with the obvious associated negative implications for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, depending on Japanís response.
The new START Treaty negotiations with Russia are moving ahead.† However, on June 21 Russian President Medvedev declared that the contemplated reductions of strategic nuclear weapons down to perhaps 1500 on each side (from 6000 in the current Treaty) would depend on the United States not pursuing its planned anti-ballistic missile deployment in Eastern Europe. How much of a problem this will be remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, the Taliban, allied to Al Qaeda, have been on the march in Pakistan. We mentioned in our book that an unstable Pakistan would significantly increase the threat of nuclear proliferation to terrorists.† In May, the Taliban seized control of the Swat Valley, less than a hundred miles from the Pakistani capital of Islamabad. This raised the spectre of the possible vulnerability of some or all of Pakistan's nuclear weapon stockpile to seizure by terrorists, the ultimate nightmare. The Pakistani Army has struck back vigorously, and the Taliban are in retreat. To sharpen the issue, however, a senior Al Qaeda representative said on June 22 in an Al Jazeera television interview that once in possession of these weapons Al Qaeda would "use them against the Americans."
Contemplating all of this, one is further convinced that the world that we live in today is exceedingly dangerous and becoming more so. As President Obama said in Prague in early April, the central goal of the United States and the world community must be to eventually eliminate all nuclear weapons, verifiably and enforcably, world-wide. In the meantime, as we said in Preventing Catastrophe, our first line of defense will remain an effective and capable Intelligence Community, supported by the Administration, the Congress and the American people.