IAEA’s Proliferation Worries

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Nuclear tests by North Korea increased concerns of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

There are approximately 20 to 30 nations awaiting development of nuclear weapons in addition to the nine nations already in possession of the same. (Five permanent members of the UN Security Council, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea). International nuclear non proliferation strategy had been to restrict the number of nations possessing nuclear weapons. However Mr El Baradei, the IAEA Chief admitted in Vienna that the policy had not succeeded in keeping more nations out of the nuclear weapons race.

While spread of nuclear energy was beneficial, it was highlighted that non peaceful uses has been widespread. A new generation of states regarded as virtual nuclear weapon states were coming up which also increased the threat of nuclear trafficking and likelihood of these falling into the hands of such non state actors as the Al Qaeda. The key issues highlighted by Mr Baradei to promote non proliferation by the IAEA are funding which should be independent, legal mechanisms to enhance powers of weapons inspectors and advanced technology such as satellite imagery and environmental sampling for detecting undeclared nuclear activities. This will also have to be supplemented by inspections of facilities on the ground.

A report in Stratfor, by Fred Burton indicated that there was a possibility of terrorists in Iraq manufacturing a dirty bomb which is said to be a radiological dispersion device which could be linked with an Indigenous Explosive Device (IED). This would raise the conflict to a new level. There are two possible implications of such a strike, retaliation by the US and increased pressure on US and other coalition members to withdraw from Iraq.

The report coming after the nuclear test by North Korea during the past month raises questions on the effectiveness of the global nuclear non proliferation regime. Evidence so far suggests that nations that are determined to acquire nuclear capability have invariably succeeded in the same.

India, Pakistan, Israel and now North Korea are the most salient examples of this truism. South Africa is the only state that has abdicated the nuclear option voluntarily. This may be so as it is not facing a substantial threat. Libya did so after intense pressure by the USA. Iran is continuing with its program of nuclear proliferation and as the trend goes a Persian bomb will be a reality within a decade. As the report by Fred Burton and other studies have revealed, terrorist organizations are gradually attaining the capability to strike with a dirty bomb.

The key issue for terrorists is the extent of damage that such a device can cause, which will certainly exceed that of 9/11. For a nation state, nuclear capability implies power, prestige and realignment of relationships when accompanied by other political and economic developments. The key to non proliferation thus is demoting the value of currency denoted by the atom bomb which can come about only if big powers make major demonstrative sacrifices in abdication of their options.

There is no doubt that the hands of the IAEA need to be strengthened. One option is to make it an independent regulatory authority which is not reliant on financial support by any nation. Establishing a global corpus will provide for such funds providing it greater independence in decision making. On the other hand it is essential to enhance technology that can enable remote sensing to be followed by physical inspections. The key to the problem is however dissuasion of prospective nations, starting with Iran, which is reportedly on the threshold of a nuclear test, though this brink may be some years away. A political understanding between the three major powers, USA, Russia and China alone can bring about a change in the overall global nuclear power matrix.

Rahul K. Bhonsle is a Strategic Risk and Knowledge Management Consultant and writer with specific focus on defence and security, especially in South Asia.