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Going Nuclear: Many Aim to Join a Powerful Club

The enrichment facility at Natanz is one of the key components of Iran's nuclear program.
Majid Saeedi
Getty Images
The enrichment facility at Natanz is one of the key components of Iran's nuclear program.

Countries, rather than terrorist groups, are likely to be the next to acquire nuclear weapons, the author of a new book on nuclear proliferation says.

"The future is quite clear," says William Langewiesche, who has written about Iran's nuclear ambition in The Atomic Bazaar. "The poor of the world will acquire increasingly the nuclear weapons capabilities.

"The problem, however, is very different than the problem is for terrorists," he says. "Having one or two bombs doesn't do you much good if you're a government. What you want to have is an arsenal, and if you have the capability you then have power, which is really what this is about."

Steve Inskeep talks to Langewiesche about why nations like Iran want to join the nuclear club.

You've previously told us that it's a low-probability event that a terrorist group would ever put together a bomb. What makes it relatively easy for countries to do that to the extent that quite a few seem to be pursuing nuclear programs all the time?

Because they can set up the manufacturing facilities to produce the fissile material. They can provide the haven, they can build the warehouses and either put them in a cave or in bunker or not. They provide the political safety for this to occur.

They don't have to steal the uranium or buy it the way a terrorist group would have to do. They could try to enrich it as Iran says it is currently doing.

That's correct and that is what they do. If you want to sustain an arsenal of nuclear weapons, there's no hope of acquiring enough fissile material on the black market. You might be able to acquire enough for one or two bombs. That's not the problem if you're a government. You want to build an arsenal.

Let's say that you are able to get that far. Do you then need a bunch of brilliant scientists to turn that uranium into an effective nuclear arsenal?

Well, we know in the case of Pakistan and the famous A.Q. Kahn, who was the great proliferator responsible for Pakistan's acquisition of nuclear weapons, that it helps if you've got a very smart and ambitious guy leading the effort. He stole a lot of very specific information about centrifuges, that is the machine that is used to enrich uranium. He did not steal information about building of nuclear bombs because you don't need to steal that information. It's all in [the] public domain. And I would imagine that he cut five to 10 years off the effort by just walking away from the Netherlands with that information in his head.

Is getting the fuel the hardest part, whether you are going to try to buy it as a terrorist would or whether you're going to try to make it as a state might?

Getting or making the fuel is the hardest part. It's the big operation. And in the case of a terrorist, it has to do with being very discrete and getting a small amount. In the case of a government, it has to do with setting up an enormous industry, which Pakistan did.

And is it safe to say that if a country like Iran succeeds in enriching enough uranium, that's it. They can be a nuclear power anytime they want to be.

Of course. We know very well what Iran is doing. There's no secret here. They are pursuing nuclear weapons right now and really cannot be stopped because this is information — and you can't bomb information out of people's heads. The logic for acquiring nuclear weapons is quite clear in many countries and in Iran.

What do you mean the logic of acquiring nuclear weapons?

These are very effective political tools. It's not by chance that the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council are the same members of the original club of five nuclear powers: France, Britain, Russia (the former Soviet Union), China, United States.

And then there's a list of other countries that have acquired nuclear weapons in the years since.

Well, we had Israel and South Africa. Both of them being maverick nations, so they were not operating by the pure logic of the Cold War. India, also, early, a non-aligned state.

It wanted to defend itself against China, for example, so it needed nuclear weapons.


And then Pakistan wanted to defend itself against India.

And it all makes sense. Once India had a nuclear weapon, Pakistan, really being the target of India's anger often, really needed to have nuclear weapons also. So these are not irrational choices. That's the problem. We may deplore it, but the logic is there.

Is there something viral about this? Every new country that gets the bomb creates other countries around it which desperately need the bomb.

Start with the United States. I mean it all began, of course, with Hiroshima. And after that, the progression continued and it will continue. Really, the problem for us in the United States is to look at this realistically without fear to make sure that we don't sort of self-destruct through vague fears of nuclear annihilation, which are probably overstated, and that we accept the reality, which cannot be changed.

Of course, that doesn't mean to stand down from attempts to limit the spread of nuclear weapons by any means. But an acknowledgement that the spread is inevitable would tend to mitigate against some of the more extreme reactions. For instance, possible wars against a country like Iran.

How can fears of nuclear annihilation be overstated?

First of all, the word annihilation is rather large. We're looking at the possibility ... more likely of limited nuclear wars fought between Third World states — Indian and Pakistan. We're talking, of course, about the possibility of millions of people dying — a very serious thing. But it's not the same thing as global annihilation, sort of the Cold War idea.

What are we to make of that when you're pointing us to a world where, given the options, the likelihood of a nuclear war that maybe only involved a few dozen bombs because that's all a couple of countries had in their arsenals, and maybe only killed millions rather than billions of people, is considered an acceptable outcome.

Well, this is our bed and we lie in it. This is the world in which we live. We may not like it, we shouldn't like it, but this is where we are in history.

Is there anything reassuring here in the way that states, as opposed to terrorists, would use a nuclear weapon or not use a nuclear weapon once they have it?

There is one thing. All countries, states, that become nuclear powers are subject to the logic of deterrence. That is, mutually assured destruction, retaliation, and, to the extent that they have big houses, they have families, they have infrastructure ... or maybe that they even care about their own countries. They're offering huge targets that cannot be defended and things can get out of control, of course. But assured destruction or retaliation continues to be our best hope.

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