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Nuclear proliferation expert discusses overall level of proliferation.

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Wednesday, 11 February 2004




PETER THOMPSON:  Well, 'the tip of the iceberg'—that's how a senior nuclear authority has described Pakistan's transfer of nuclear secrets to countries like Libya, North Korea and Iran. Mohamed Elbaradei, who heads up the International Atomic Energy Agency, says the black market trade in nuclear material and weapons is the most dangerous phenomena we've seen, in the nonproliferation area, for many years. There are still many unanswered questions about how much nuclear know-how went from Pakistan and exactly where it went, and now it seems there could be even more to worry about.


Dr Selig Harrison is Director of the Asia Program at the Center for International Policy. He is an authority on nuclear proliferation, particularly in the Asia Pacific region, and the author of several acclaimed books on the region, and he joins us this morning from Washington.


Dr Harrison, with Libya coming back into the fold in a way, and abandoning its nuclear program, and the slight thawing in relations with Iran, one might have thought that things were getting better. But how worried should we be about the overall level of proliferation?


SELIG HARRISON: I think we should be very worried about one aspect of it. There are two things to worry about: the most important is that nuclear material—enriched uranium or reprocessed plutonium—will find its way into the hands of terrorist group who would use it to make a dirty bomb and stage a mindless terrorist attack on some city—that's a danger. That's why Pakistan's nuclear program is particularly dangerous because, here's a country with many very serious ideological divisions within the society, people in the nuclear establishment who hate the United States and think that Pakistan is much too close to the United States. And the problem of finding a way to make sure that Pakistan's nuclear enriched uranium does not leak into the hands of terrorists is a real problem and it is a real problem in the case of North Korea. If this present inflexible US diplomatic posture toward North Korea continues and we don't negotiate a settlement—it's not inconceivable—then in a serious confrontation with North Korea, North Korea could sell reprocessed plutonium to somebody. That's what's really the biggest danger it seems to me.


The danger of proliferation of weapons, in the sense that we've seen all this technology transferred, could be used to make nuclear weapons, is to me not as fundamentally dangerous because most of the countries concerned want to make nuclear weapons to deter what they think might be the nuclear power of the United States, at a time particularly when the US is engaging in unilateralism. And the North Korean problem is essentially a problem in a country that is going ahead with its nuclear program because they are afraid of the United States. The ultimate solution of the problem of proliferation of nuclear weapons would require an entirely different American approach to its own right to have a nuclear dominance in the world. We had nuclear arms control at the end of the Cold War.


The first President Bush negotiated Start 2 and it looked like it could go on from their to a progressive diminution of the nuclear weapons—first major powers and then gradually the peripheral nuclear powers. But that's all gone by the [inaudible] and now we have an administration in Washington talking about not only not reducing and eliminating nuclear weapons eventually but lowering the threshold for nuclear use and building new kinds of nuclear weapons. So all these countries are basically responding to this nuclear unilateralism of the US and that, it seems to me, it is not as if there all going to drop nukes on Australia and the United States.


PETER THOMPSON: Let me just take up something you wrote in the Boston Globe just in the last day or so. You said even the sternest punishment of Khan—referring to A.Q. Khan, the Pakistan nuclear scientist and his cronies—would only be the first step in a meaningful Pakistani effort to reassure the world that future nuclear transfers will not occur.


Now what does Pakistan need to do because even your precondition about the sternest punishment of Khan, it's quite clear that won't happen?


SELIG HARRISON: That's right. No, I think that now the Bush administration feels that it has to be very nice to General Musharraf because he is cooperating, to some extent, with the US vis-à-vis the al-Qaeda, and so they are not really attempting to impose the kind of conditions on Pakistan for the big US aid that we are giving them, that would guard against the leakage of nuclear materials to terrorists, to al-Qaeda, to other extremist groups—front people inside the nuclear establishment there. They have enough enriched uranium stockpile to make 52 more nuclear weapons in addition to the 48 they already have and, therefore, the problem for the United States and for the IAEA is to get Pakistan to climb down from the high horse that Musharraf has been on since he got into this mess recently, and we just simply have to try to replicate what we did in Russia at the end of the Cold War. There was concern then about the leakage of nuclear materials from Russian nuclear plants—there still is from Russian and central Asian nuclear plants. We got into what are called lab-to-lab agreements in which the Los Alamos and Livermore laboratories in the US got into partnerships with Russian laboratories, became very profitable for the Russian laboratories, but it also meant the US scientists could install protective measures in those labs and they've been very largely, I think, sealed up. We've got to do that in Pakistan but [inaudible] time there is no sign that we going to be tough with Musharraf at all.


PETER THOMPSON: Mohamed Elbaradei has called for some sort of international regime to destroy this black market in nuclear technology. You are talking about American measures being taken with Pakistan. Is an international regime even remotely possible?


SELIG HARRISON: Yes, I think it is. I think that it is possible. It certainly wouldn't be easy. The problem is that the IAEA (the International Atomic Energy Agency)—the countries that have signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, then agreed to nuclear inspections by the IAEA. For a country like Pakistan, which hasn't signed the NPT, it's not clear that you could use the IAEA for an international regime of inspections.


But certainly, the whole nuclear black market problem is very serious and because, as you said at the beginning it includes nuclear material as well as nuclear know-how, and as I said, it is the nuclear material that is the really dangerous problem. To solve the problem of nuclear weapons proliferation you've got to start with the American … the major-power policies that say we are going to keep our own nuclear weapons and nobody else can have them. That's not a policy which will work. But the problem of containing the leakage of nuclear material is something that I think can be addressed and really should be addressed very urgently.


PETER THOMPSON: All these developments that have been taking place, some commentators have made the point that the world media is not treating these as though they are linked in any way, that we are reporting, for instance, developments in Libya quite separately from those in Iran, let alone linkages with North Korea appearing to be more cooperative on nuclear issues, and what we have seen in Pakistan.


Do you see linkages between all these developments?


SELIG HARRISON: I think they are part of the same problem but each of them has very distinctive aspects. The North Korean problem could be solved, it seems to me, with a US diplomacy that was diplomacy that recognised that you have to make deals to get people to do things. And in the case of North Korea they want a deterrent against the US and if we are prepared make it profitable for them then they will do what they think is not really justified. They say, 'You know, if the US says 10,000 nuclear weapons, why aren't we allowed to make any so give us something.' 


If we would deal with North Korea I think that we could solve that problem. But each problem is different. Libya, for various economic reasons, I think primarily internally, and some of the accidents of leadership there—Gaddafi's son getting a lot of exposure to the West and coming back and saying: Look, we're not doing the right thing. Each case is different; you deal with each case in a different way.


We had leverage with respect to Gaddafi on the whole Lockerbie business. Iran is again a different case. Iran has a sense of national destiny, national importance and it's going to be very difficult to say to Iraq: you can't even have the capability to a civilian nuclear program. It's very different from the case of Libya which does not have a great sense of national destiny in spite of Mr Gaddafi's posturing over the years.


PETER THOMPSON: What about the current nuclear powers? Russia has the largest single nuclear arsenal in terms of weapons. The US of course is armed to the teeth, as you have been pointing out. There's China, France, the UK, Israel, India and Pakistan. What about the instability of these current programs? Is the focus being almost exclusively put on the countries we have been talking about? Is that too easily led off the existing nuclear powers?


SELIG HARRISON: I think it has because after all the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the NPT article VI, was a deal. The countries that agreed not to make nuclear weapons under the NPT did it in return for a pledge by the existing nuclear powers at that time—in the sixties—that they would progressively reduce their nuclear weapons. Well, they didn't do very much but at least they made a pretence of it up until the end of the Cold War. There were gradual arms control treaties and there was the idea of nuclear reductions was widely accepted by all the governments concerned.


Then, in my opinion, we had the misfortune of getting in the White House of the United States a president, Mr Clinton, who was on the defensive on all military matters because he hadn't been in the Vietnam War and he didn't fight the Pentagon on anything and, therefore, we didn't pursue nuclear arms control during the Clinton administration. It's all the fault of the Republicans because the first President Bush did get us started. Now we've got a guy in the White House who has reversed the arms control policies of the last 50 years with his doctrine of pre-emption and the idea that it's a great thing for the United States to have nuclear dominance. We are going to protect the whole world against instability and we've got to get back to the concept of nuclear arms reductions and eventual elimination, very gradually of course, that we had at the end of the Cold War.


PETER THOMPSON: Dr Harrison, let's just, in winding this up, go back to where you began and that was your fear that these nuclear materials will be transferred in some way to terrorist groups. How might that happen?


SELIG HARRISON: Well, it could certainly happen in the case of Pakistan where there's no indication that President Musharraf has really got a tight grip on the whole nuclear establishment there. Everything is in a state of great upheaval there and tremendous divisions within Pakistan which are reflected in the personnel of the nuclear establishment. So it's a scare scenario but it is far from impossible that you could get leakage from the Pakistani nuclear establishment of some of the enriched uranium that is stockpiled for 52 two more nuclear weapons to al-Qaeda elements. I am not at all confident that the nuclear situation in Pakistan is under control. It's not just a question of leakage of technology to other countries but the leakage of the nuclear material that they have.


In the case of North Korea, I don't think it is as serious. I think that the North Koreans would only, as a very last resort, with their back against the wall—I've actually had a discussion of this with a North Korean diplomat—would resort to selling their nuclear material, their plutonium, to others. But it certainly can't be ruled out if a confrontation between the US and North Korea were to become really serious and they thought their survival was at stake.


So I think in the case Russia and the central Asian republics a lot of the things that have been done to deal with what was a subject of great concern at the end of the Cold War, have reduced that danger. So I think the point is that we should concentrate, not only on the international black market and the circulation of this know-how to additional countries, but on export controls and other means of making sure that there is not a leakage of nuclear material.


PETER THOMPSON: Thanks again so much for talking to us once more.


SELIG HARRISON: Thank you very much.


PETER THOMPSON: Dr Selig Harrison who is Director of the Asia Program at the Center for International Policy in Washington.