Exclusive: Nuclear Terrorism: How Did We Get Here? Where Are We? And Where Can We Go? (Part One of Ten)

by PETER HUESSY March 23, 2010
There are two important news stories about nuclear weapons that many Americans are watching. First, will there be a new treaty reducing nuclear weapons between the U.S. and Russia and second, what are the prospects that Iran will get a nuclear weapon in the not to distant future? Of gravest concern to many is that Iran would transfer a nuclear device to a specially created terror cell to smuggle it into the United States, or Israel or a U.S. European ally and detonate it in a city, killing tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of people.
In a letter to the New York Times on March 7th, Sen. James Inhofe wrote: "If today's greatest nuclear danger is that terrorists will steal or build a weapon then United States-Russian nuclear disarmament is at best a distraction from what really needs to be done." This does raise the issue of whether we are devoting diplomatic time to a deal with the Russians – a new START deal – while we should be paying greater attention to the latter – the nuclear program in Iran.
The current wisdom is that any new deal with Russia will look good, will bring U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons stockpiles down, some 700 warheads less, or a 25 percent reduction, from the levels of the 2002 Moscow treaty that successfully reduced US and Russian deployed weapons to no more than 2200 from previous levels of 6,000, a nearly 70 percent cut. The deal will also give us “momentum” going into a summit of national leaders on proliferation and re-establish our “good credentials” as a key signatory to the NPT or Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In turn, having created a good diplomatic climate, other countries such as Brazil, Turkey and China, can risk being seen as “buddies” of the United States and join us in a UN Security Council Resolution putting additional sanctions on Iran over its nuclear weapons program. This in turn will bring Iran into compliance with the NPT requirements as the mullahs in Tehran will decide between building nukes and enduring economic sanctions or complying with the NPT and being a “normal member” of the “international community.”
It is unclear at best that such a “cascade of deals” will work. Brazil says Iran is not building a nuclear weapon and Turkey has said no to additional sanctions. China relies heavily on Iran for imported petroleum – now some 15 percent of its daily requirements – and has made major pledges to invest in Iran’s energy and gas sector, to the tune of billions of dollars. There apparently is a quid pro quo – Iran ships China oil, and makes deals with China re: future energy investments. In return, the PRC builds a wall against serious sanctions at the UN and helps Iran with its nuclear weapons program.
Thus, the PRC may be key to stopping Iran’s nuclear program, as it recently was discovered that Peking had purchased from a Swiss manufacturer key components for determining the level to which uranium has been enriched for use as a fuel for nuclear weapons, actions that were probably contrary to international law, certainly a violation of the spirit of the NPT and another piece of evidence that China does not see the proliferation of nuclear weapons to states such as Iran, North Korea and elsewhere as problematic.
Some officials also may not see an Iranian nuclear bomb as a problem. Ted Turner, the founder of CNN, explained that since the United States had thousands of nuclear weapons, why couldn’t Iran have a few hundred? Others such as Dr. Brzezinski believe that should Iran succeed in building a nuclear weapon we could always deter them from using such weapons. Although the U.S. administration has made it clear that it continues to work on the serious task of preventing an Iranian nuclear bomb – the Secretary of State saying March 22 that the US found it totally unacceptable for such an outcome – there is an assumption among some strategists that if the worst happens, we can still “contain” or “deter” Tehran.
For example, Gen. James Jones, the President’s National Security adviser: "Of all the things that could be a nightmare scenario...I can tell you its proliferation, the acquisition of a weapon of mass destruction by a terrorist organization. The difference between a nation-state doing so and a rogue group of a terrorist organization is that nation-states can be controlled", (USA Today, January 26, 2010).
However, even if one can deter such a state from overtly using such a weapon, you have the problem of a regime such as Iran giving such a weapon to a terror group precisely for the purpose of avoiding attribution. According to the U.S. annual Threat Assessment, "Traditionally WMD use by most nation states has been constrained by deterrence and diplomacy, but these constraints may be of less utility in preventing the use of mass-effect weapons by terrorist groups.” This is true, but this report apparently misses the possibility that a rogue nation like Iran would be highly likely to provide nuclear weapons to a specially created terror cell for exactly the purpose of using such a weapon against the United States. It is true that if we could, through nuclear forensics, determine the origin of such a weapon we might be able to extend deterrence to such a regime contemplating such an attack. But the technology of forensics is not there yet. But as Adm. Blair warned Congress earlier this year, “Moreover, the time when only a few states had access to the most dangerous technologies is over. Technologies, often dual-use, circulate easily in our globalized economy, as do the personnel with scientific expertise that design and use them. It is difficult for the United States and its partners to track efforts to acquire WMD components and production technologies that are widely available." Admiral Blair, Annual Threat Assessment, February 2, 2010
Although a terror group could certainly try and build a nuclear bomb, a dirty bomb, or a radiological device, would be the more likely possibility according to the final report of the WMD Commission chaired by former Sens. Graham and Talent. However, this still does not address the central issue of “state sponsors” of terror and their terror accomplices, especially Iran, as it is described by the U.S. Department of State as the primary sponsor and supporter of terror in the world today.
The problem we face is not a neat series of threats with countries in column “A” and terror groups in column “B.” Unfortunately, even with the collapse of the Khan “Nukes ‘R Us” enterprise, there has emerged a new nuclear express or cartel of terror master states, economic and state entities as accomplices, and terror organizations, some elements of which are intent upon causing grave harm to the United States and its allies, including the use of nuclear weapons. Sanctions and interdiction are two tools now in use to counter these threats, but are currently in of themselves inadequate to the task-at-hand.
China, Russia and North Korea, as well as Venezuela, are the most important accomplices to the Iranian regimes quest for nuclear weapons. Threats to the U.S. include nuclear coercion as well as the a) detonation of a nuclear device in an American city by a terrorist group provided nuclear weapons by a terror master state/nuclear armed state, such as Iran, Pakistan or North Korea or a nuclear device used in an EMP-type attack from a ballistic missile.
Current analysis of these threats is relatively weak, as it is shaped by the following factors: (1) a false distinction between terror master states and their terror group allies; (2) a too great reliance upon traditional means of deterrence and arms control to deal with nuclear threats; (3) an assumption that the Iranian regime and other “terror masters” are amenable to traditional international norms and public diplomacy; (4) an apparent unwillingness to acknowledge the widespread economic trade/investment with Iran that supports its terrorism and nuclear enterprises from major nation states such as Russia and China and numerous multinational corporations; (5) an affection for the belief that American military power, including its nuclear deterrent, is primarily responsible for the nuclear ambitions of rogue states; (6) an unwillingness to believe the duplicity of Iranian negotiators has been part of a deliberate long-running state policy; and (7) a failure to understand that the U.S. and its European allies have a greater capability/leverage to eliminate this threat, especially through the use of economic, energy and banking sanctions to effect regime change, than we assume.
In the next part of this 10 part series, we will examine these issues. “It’s Not Personal, It’s Just Business:” What economic tools do the U.S. and its allies have available to stop nuclear weapons proliferation? And how does this relate to the emerging cartel of states, businesses, and terror groups promoting the most dangerous weapons technologies to the most dangerous people.
FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributing Editor Peter Huessy is President of GeoStrategic Analysis, a defense consulting company in Potomac, Maryland.

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