INTRO = Robert Oppenheimer's prediction at Los Alamos that nuclear weapons will become universal if people want them to be universal, seems frighteningly prescient in the light of the reckless proliferation practised by some of the world's nuclear powers.
Decades ago the West made a Faustian bargain with the devil - the nuclear devil. Circumventing its own non-proliferation laws, the United States and its Western allies allowed Pakistan to beg, borrow and steal its way to nuclear weapon status. And you know, like any Faustian bargain, there comes a time to pay up.
Given the speed with which the North Koreans have achieved nuclear untouchability, it isn't far-fetched to imagine the Iranians or Algerians springing their own nuclear trump card in a year or two. And if that scenario comes to pass, the ensuing Armageddon in the Middle East will make the war games in the Korean peninsula look like a pub brawl.
The North Korean nuclear weapons programme is based on Pakistani bomb blueprints, provided free by Pakistan's patron China, which in turn got it from a German spy who stole the design from America's Los Alamos labs. It was classic you-scratch-my-back-I scratch-yours where the Pakistanis got North Korea's highly touted long range missiles and the North attained nuclear armed status. The mating of the WMD's proved to a game changer.
But where the United States has little or no leverage over the communists, it could have easily stopped the Pakistanis. The excuse peddled is the Americans needed Pakistan for its help in launching the Islamic jehad - now the world's single biggest headache - against the Soviet Union. However, that's as lame as it gets because Pakistan has been a client state of the West longer than anyone cares to remember. It is perhaps the only nation on earth whose leaders need prior clearance from America before taking oath.
That leverage wasn't effectively used to restrain the Islamic country's ambitions. President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher were known to nod and wink as the Pakistanis went ahead and collected material for the "Islamic Bomb'. Virtually every petro-dollar soaked Middle Eastern sheikdom and the likes of Libya's Colonel Gaddafi funded and blessed the Pakistani project.
The progress of the Islamic Bomb was known to Indian intelligence as well but New Delhi's protests were brushed aside. Since the CIA and the NSA couldn't but be aware of Pakistan's progress, the explanation for such cavalier behaviour is the West was willing to look the other way because a few crude bombs in Pakistan's basement were too distant to be of any real danger to Europe or America. Now we know better - Islamic terrorists are working overtime to somehow smuggle a nuclear bomb into America or Europe.
However, the Oscar for proliferation goes to China that has helped create a nuclear supermarket. In 1966, just two years after it tested a nuclear weapon, Beijing handed over the blueprints for a simple uranium atomic bomb to the Pakistanis, firing up their delusional dreams of parity with India. You could call it China's export model, a sophisticated device, sketches of which later showed up in Libya, Iran and Algeria.
For all their tireless efforts, the Pakistanis - who had in the meantime also stolen Dutch nuclear technology - were unable to produce a bomb. So Beijing bailed them out again. A declassified State Department memo obtained by the National Security Archive in Washington reveals that in 1982 China passed on the technology for fissile material production as well. It also dispatched advisers to help out their ally. Still, it took the Pakistanis another eight years to produce a bomb, which the Chinese were kind enough to test in the Lop Nor desert in May 1990.
In their book The Nuclear Express, Thomas C. Reed, former US Air Force Secretary and a veteran of the Livermore weapons laboratory in California, and Danny B. Stillman, former director of intelligence at Los Alamos, say China's export model was designed that nearly "anybody could build."
Indeed, China has done more to destroy the non-proliferation regime than any other country. In 1982 it made a policy decision to flood the developing world with atomic know-how. Its identified clients include Algeria, Pakistan and North Korea. It has become the leading supplier of WMD technology to rogue regimes around the world. In October 2006, even after the North Korean nuclear test, the Chinese ambassador to the UN said, "China does not approve of inspecting cargo to and from the DPRK." That is not surprising. China has allowed many a proliferant state to overfly its territory when picking up illicit goods in North Korea.
While the West is wiser after realizing its folly, China's outsize geopolitical ambitions remain a huge destabilizer. It clearly wants to strengthen the enemies of its perceived enemies (the United States and India for a start) or to encourage nuclear wars or terror in foreign lands from which Beijing would emerge as the last man standing. Some within the Chinese government might not object to the nuclear destruction of New York or Washington followed by the collapse of American financial power, so long as Chinese fingerprints are not found at the scene of the crime.
Another potentially game-changing factor are rogue South African nuclear scientists. In 1979, Israel and South Africa jointly detonated a nuclear device in the South Atlantic. Reed and Stillman charge that South Africa at one point targeted Luanda, the capital of neighboring Angola, "for a nuclear strike if peace talks failed." (Since Angola was a Soviet ally, what the Russians would have done to the reckless South Africans is not too hard to imagine).
The endgame of Apartheid saw the Afrikaner-led regime hastily dismantle the six nuclear bombs in their arsenal, not out of nuclear guilt pangs but because they did not want Africa's only nuclear-armed state to metamorphose into the world's first black nuclear power. However, that's not where the story ends. The authors warn that South African nuclear mercenaries may be more dangerous than the underemployed scientists of the former Soviet Union because they have no real home in Africa.
Nuclear weapons are mighty hard to produce. That's why since the first atom bomb explosion in 1945 only nine countries have joined the nuclear club. Robert Oppenheimer's observations at Los Alamos that nuclear weapons are "not too hard to make" and "they will be universal" have both been proved wrong.
But it seems some of the world's leading nations are determined to prove Oppenheimer right.
About the author: Rakesh Krishnan Simha is a features writer at New Zealand's leading media house. He has previously worked with Businessworld, India Today and Hindustan Times, and was news editor with the Financial Express
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