The world needs a new way to contain the spread of nuclear weapons among nations, especially in an age of big-shock terrorism.
The current system, which relies mainly on the 1968 Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty (NPT), could start to unravel this week in a standoff between the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Iran over that nation's nuclear ambitions.
Iran threatens to pull out of the treaty, as North Korea did in 2002, if the IAEA board reprimands it, as expected, for blocking a probe of its nuclear facilities. Iran claims it has a right to develop nuclear weapons, even though the oil-rich nation says it's developing nuclear power only for electricity. But the IAEA caught Iran lying about technical capabilities that suggest it's developing bomb-grade material. The US claims Iran is bent on being a nuclear power, which would destabilize the Middle East.
Although Libya recently gave up its nuclear-weapons program, as did Taiwan and South Africa in decades past, Iran could thus join North Korea, Pakistan, India, and Israel as nuclear powers outside the NPT's constraints. That would make it even easier for other nations to join that club.
The NPT was meant to prevent such proliferation. The deal was that nuclear weapons would be limited to the United States, China, France, Britain, and the Soviet Union (now Russia), while other countries could obtain nuclear technology for peaceful uses - subject to IAEA inspections. The nuclear powers, meanwhile, promised to phase out their weapons.
The latter has never happened. Nor did the US constrain Israel in the 1960s from developing its nuclear arsenal. If Iran makes good on its threat to leave the NPT, it should force the international community to come up with a comprehensive new solution to nuclear proliferation.
The Bush administration has proposed a global freeze on the export of nuclear-power technology to prevent any more nations from cheating, as Iran appears to have done. But European allies agreed to only a one-year ban at a G-8 summit this month. That's a start, but more action is needed to prevent regional nuclear wars and keep such weapons from falling into terrorist hands. A US attack on Iran's or North Korea's facilities appears unlikely for now, given its experience in Iraq. The best solution would be a diplomatic one.