Between Ossetia and Teheran
Op-Ed, The Jerusalem Post
September 9, 2004
Author: Brenda Shaffer, Former Research Fellow, International Security Program, 1999–2007; Former Research Director, Caspian Studies Program, 2000–2005; Former Research Director, Caspian Studies Project, 2005–2007
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security
Averting nuclear terror has yet to become an international priority, even after last week's massacre
The calculated targeting of a school and subsequent slaughter of the students and teachers by terrorists in southern Russia demonstrates that a new level of terrorism has become tolerable in the international system. The Chechen attack in North Ossetia was not a hostage-taking incident but a suicide mission aimed at children, as shown by the fact that the terrorists did not present answerable demands, the placement of their weapons, and their behavior toward the captives during the siege.
While this atrocity was condemned around the globe, it has yet to inspire either international action or policy formulation against this new level of terrorism. Far worse, however, may be coming: Assorted terrorist groups have already articulated their intent to "go nuclear." Despite both this warning and the expanding worldwide accessibility of fissile materials, averting nuclear terrorism is not a policy priority. Much of the potentially available fissile materials are close to home where the terrorists thrive — Russia, Pakistan, and Iran. Though often distracted from global security issues by more local threats, Israeli policy-makers should be working to mobilize concerned people and governments around the world to take action to prevent nuclear terrorism.
In the recent study "Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe," Harvard professor Graham Allison claims that if steps are not taken soon, nuclear terrorism is imminent. Despite this apocalyptic assessment, Allison says it is possible to prevent nuclear terrorism and offers three policy prescriptions: no loose nukes; no new nascent nukes (including new national capabilities to enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium); and no new nuclear weapons states.
What can Israel do to prevent the horrific realization of nuclear terror?
One notion that needs to be set aside is that the Iranian nuclear program is only dangerous if it actually succeeds in building a nuclear weapon. Most Western attention is focused on the point when Iran develops an indigenous ability to produce substantial quantities of bomb-grade uranium or plutonium.
Discrepancies between Europe and the US over the Iranian nuclear program have centered on how close Teheran actually is to attaining nuclear weapons and its intentions to test and deploy nuclear weapons if it achieves the technology to do so. However, the US and Europe do agree on the existence of extensive Iranian facilities that are testing nuclear technologies and creating fissile materials. These all pose a danger of serving as a supply base to terrorists, regardless of whether Iran crosses the nuclear weapons threshold or not.
IN LIGHT of the consensus on the existence of these facilities and the recognition of the dangers they pose as a source for nuclear terrorism, European states could more easily be convinced to join the nonproliferation efforts that focus on this specific threat.
Next, plans should be implemented for securing nuclear materials and installations during periods of instability — even in unfriendly states. One can easily envision nuclear materials falling into the hands of terrorists if looting and lawlessness were to reign in Iran similar to that which followed the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Publics, even those under hostile regimes, often share concerns about nuclear facilities located within their communities and could become partners in influencing their governments — even if they are undemocratic — to safeguard these sites.
States in which the command-and-control structure on nuclear facilities is either hidden from elected officials or in the hands of a small group of insiders who may have personal and financial incentives to sell nuclear materials pose additional proliferation dangers. Policy efforts should target the lack of transparency of the lines of command and control on such nuclear sites.
The current American election campaign is an important opportunity for concerned people in both parties to make sure that their candidate has specific plans to address the danger of nuclear terrorism — and that they deliver after taking office.
Both President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry have declared their support for preventing nuclear terrorism. But the current administration has failed to sufficiently fund increased safety measures on nuclear materials in Russia and has allowed Teheran to advance its nuclear program practically unchallenged. Kerry, for his part, has not presented a plan that could address the Iranian proliferation concern, offering only the ineffectual panacea of engagement. Both candidates say that they support preventing nuclear terrorism, and they should present concrete and effective policy plans to implement Allison's three principles.
Russia's role is crucial in preventing nuclear terrorism. The positive steps that Russia has taken in joining the international nonproliferation efforts should be recognized and rewarded. For over a year, Moscow has demonstrated a responsible approach to its cooperation with Iran, foremost by refusing to supply fuel to the Bushehr reactor until an agreement is in place that guarantees the safe and timely return of the reactor's spent fuel. Moscow also maintains ties with pivotal states that could be nuclear sources for terrorists —giving it unique leverage that it could be persuaded to apply.
Finally, extensive nuclear facilities and stockpiles are spread throughout Russia in underguarded locations — a magnet for native and foreign terrorists. US and European voters should lobby their governments to provide Russia with funding for securing these locations.
The tragedy of Beslan is an omen and should prompt action before an even more horrific escalation.
The writer is a research fellow at the International Security Program at Harvard University and the Harvey and Connie Krueger Scholar at the Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem
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