Thu, Feb 24, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Flirting with Armageddon: Welcome to a new arms race

The threat of a dirty bomb or `conventional' nuclear strike is now greater than during the Cold War

By Paul Harris and Jason Burke  /  THE OBSERVER , London

Japan too could see nuclear weapons as its only insurance against assault. With its high-tech economy many people believe Japan could develop weapons in a matter of weeks or months, not years.

But if this happens then China, motivated by longstanding fears over its advanced neighbor, will likely move to increase its own nuclear weapons arsenal and develop more advanced delivery systems.

Suddenly, the nuclear club will start to look very crowded.

Certainly Iran appears to want to join despite intensive diplomacy from a trio of European nations. Many experts put that down to a failure of US policy. Iran's leaders have looked at the contrasting fates of Iraq, which was invaded for weapons it did not have, and North Korea, which has confessed to developing nuclear weapons and now appears immune to any military threat. With the Bush administration openly bent on "regime change" in Iran, the safest route for the country's reigning mullahs seems obvious.

"Iran has learned that lesson. They want to go the North Korea route, not the Iraq route," Goldring said.

That has led to a dangerous game of brinkmanship in a Middle East destined to become a theater of conflict where nuclear weapons are suddenly a real possibility.

Israel already has the bomb. Iran, surrounded by American allies and soldiers, wants it too. Some experts think it is too late to stop Iran from going nuclear, no matter how many official denials Tehran puts out about its intentions. Others believe there is still hope.

"We need to make a concerted effort and engage with the process,' said Peter Pella, a former proliferation expert at the US State Department.

The Bush administration is taking an opposite tack. In an international version of "good cop, bad cop" European nations are holding discussions with Iran about its nuclear program, while the US makes hostile noises. Few experts failed to notice US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's recent remarks that attacking Iran was "...not on the agenda at this point." That has some US hawks on the Iranian situation delighted.

"We need a stick to use," Leventhal said. "The Europeans will have heard the `not on the agenda' part, but the Iranians will have head the `at this point' part."

Whatever the approach, few believe that the Iranian nuclear issue is anything but a potentially catastrophic powder keg. If Iran pushes ahead, then Israel could launch strikes against possible nuclear facilities, just as it did in Iraq in the 1980s. Such a move could easily ignite a major war across the region. The crisis is brewing to a boil and no real solution is yet in sight.

But there is another threat too. The nuclear threat of the 21st century also comes from terrorist groups, not just rogue states. It is no longer governments who are the most likely to spread nukes or the technology needed to make them. And it is no longer states who are most likely to use them either.

Militants such as Osama bin Laden have said that they would be prepared to use nuclear weapons. Al-Qaeda are known to have acquired plans for the manufacture of nuclear arms. Intelligence services know meetings occurred between representatives of al-Qaeda and nuclear scientists before Sept. 11. Islamic militants have since negotiated to buy what they thought was weapons-grade uranium from criminals.

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