What is it like to live in a world in which the materials and technology for making nuclear weapons are freely traded? We are in the midst of finding out. Earlier this year, investigators determined that Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan sold some of the technologies he used to build Pakistan's nuclear bomb to several governments that had long sought atomic bombs, including Iran and Libya. Clearly, the threat of the "casual" use of nuclear weapons and of nuclear terrorism has been catapulted from the abstract to the alarmingly concrete.
As Senior News Editor Bill Sweet points out in his disturbing report, "Iran's Nuclear Program Reaches a Critical Juncture," it is apparent from Iran's prevarications in its dealings with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nation's nuclear watchdog group, that its theocratic leadership is determined to acquire nuclear weapons. Ironically, it will almost seem like good news if the IAEA concludes in its forthcoming report on Iran--due out this month--that the highly enriched uranium particles collected by international inspectors in Iran last year originated in shady deals with Pakistan.
The "new" bad news will be if the IAEA concludes that Iran enriched the uranium itself--contrary to Iran's own declarations--a finding that would require the IAEA to call for sanctions by the U.N. Security Council. That scenario probably would play out as follows: Iran withdraws from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; it takes its weapons-oriented enrichment program underground (literally and figuratively); it manufactures weapons-grade materials; it turns the materials into bombs. If that's not alarming enough, recall the "loose nukes" stories that surfaced after September 11. The gist was that, for the right price, an entire weapon might be obtainable on the black market.
Only intensive, imaginative diplomacy and a massive demonstration of collective will on the part of the worldwide community can avert this nuclear catastrophe in the making. Sadly, both are in short supply today.