While India, Pakistan and Israel going nuclear was regrettable, it did not have the same consequences for world order as similar acts by Iraq's Saddam Hussein and North Korea's Kim Jong Il would, non-proliferation expert Scott D Sagan said.
Sagan, professor of political science and co-director of the Centre for International Security and Cooperation in Stanford University, was addressing a round-table conference at the American Centre in Mumbai last week.
According to Sagan (no relation of the late astronomer Carl Sagan), the two main problems on the nuclear non-proliferation agenda are the unravelling of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the increasing risk of nuclear terrorism.
When the NPT came into force in 1970, two huge bargains were made, he explained. The first was among non-nuclear states. "Believing that they would be worse off if they and their neigbours acquired nuclear weapons, but fearing that they wouldn't know whether their neighbours were getting such weapons, they signed an agreement that constrained them in exchange for constraints on their neighbours," he said.
The International Atomic Energy Agency's role was to provide verification so that non-nuclear states knew their neighbours were not getting nuclear weapons.
"The second part of that deal," he continued, "was an agreement between the nuclear states and the non-nuclear states. Under article 6 of the NPT, the nuclear states agreed to work in good faith towards the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons."
Both these bargains, he said, are in "grave danger" of unravelling today.
In 1995, when the NPT was extended in perpetuity, the US government agreed that the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty would be a legitimate piece of evidence that the nuclear states were working towards the eventual elimination of all nuclear weapons. "Unfortunately the Senate did not ratify the agreement that the executive arm of the admimistration had passed," Sagan noted. "We set a standard for that goal, but we have not kept our side of that bargain."
He warned that if the US does indeed resume nuclear testing, "it would violate the spirit of the NPT and encourage a number of other states to start their testing programmes, this country [India] included."
"The other part of the [NPT] bargain, that non-nuclear states agree that they will let inspectors in, that they will not build nuclear weapons, is also unravelling in front of our eyes," he pointed out.
This is where the fundamental difference between Israel, Indian and Pakistan on one side and Iraq, Iran and North Korea on the other lies. The nuclear programmes of the first three, he pointed out, did not violate the NPT because none of them had signed the treaty. So while non-proliferationists regretted those acts, there was nothing illegal about them.
But the nuclear programmes of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Iraq and Iran constitute violations of a treaty that they have signed, and therefore have a far worse impact in terms of setting a precedent for others.
"DPRK was caught [in 1994] taking nuclear materials out of the reactor at Pyongyang," Sagan pointed out, "and they were caught, in my judgement, in a very difficult and clever set of diplomatic carrots and military sticks. DPRK then agreed to the so-called Agreed Framework, saying that it would freeze its programmes in Pyongyang, and they would not take further rods out."
Experts believe that spent fuel enough for at least two weapons had been taken out by then, but there was no sign that North Korea had weaponised, or tested. "They agreed to freeze it in exchange for a long-term commitment from the US and its partners in South Korea and elsewhere that we would supply light-water reactors and an energy grid," he explained.
But that deal also fell through. "Moreover, they were caught cheating yet one more time with a different programme. They put in place a uranium enrichment programme, rather than a plutonium programme, using centrifuges that US intelligence agencies believe were acquired from Pakistan in exchange for missiles."
The Bush administration, Sagan said, had not handled the situation well. "Rather than providing carrots, and if the carrots don't work, the threat of sticks, the administration threatened sticks way too early." Bush calling North Korea a part of the 'axis of evil', saying that he personally loathes Kim Jong Il, "poured cold water on the South Korean efforts to have a sunshine policy to improve relations," he said.
Such statements, while understandable, only hardened the position of the North Koreans.
The goal, Sagan said, must be to keep North Korea nuclear-free. Otherwise, the more hawkish elements in South Korea, Japan, and maybe Taiwan will be encouraged to follow suit.
In West Asia, Iraq was caught cheating on the NPT after the 1991 war. But there, the UN inspections regime worked quite well on the nuclear side, though not so well with respect to the biological and chemical weapons programmes. Sagan said there is "limited controversial evidence" that the Iraqis have resumed their nuclear programme, and stronger evidence on the chemical and biological weapons programmes.
But "regardless of what you think about the mix of diplomacy vs force that should be used against Iraq", if Iraq is permitted to keep its weapons of mass destruction, it will fuel an arms race in the region, he warned. "The spread of nuclear weapons occurs when one state fears that its neighbours might have them... at least that's one primary motive... and you already have that in Iran, increased nuclear activity... they fear that if they fought a war with Iraq, it would use chemical weapons against them. They have no illusions that an Iraq with nuclear weapons will pose a grave threat to Teheran."
"Think about other states in the region," he continued. "Saudi Arabia, which was threatened with an invasion in '91; Syria, which has great rivalries. Neither has an active nuclear programme today, but unless there's a resolution to the current crisis that disarms Iraq in a credible way, those states too will have to consider nuclear programmes."
Then there's the related issue of nuclear terrorism. Until September 11, many American specialists on terrorism believed in the theory that terrorists just want a lot of people watching, they don't want a lot of people killed. "Today," Sagan said, "I think we know that there are some terrorists who'd be happy to have a lot of people killed."
In this context, there are two worrisome types of terrorist groups. One is the so-called millennarian terrorist organisations, who think the world is going to end and it is their job to hasten the process, like the Aum Shinrikyo sect that released Sarin gas in a Tokyo subway.
"The second group that I am worried about is those who want a lot of people killed and a lot of people watching, the jihadi terrorists. Who would like to see revolutions occur in a number of states in South Asia and the Middle East, and they think that revolutions are more likely if American troops are involved in killing a lot of Muslims."
Sagan believes Osama bin Laden anticipated the American attack on Afghanistan after September 11. "As former national security adviser Sandy Berger put it in an article, the real twin towers Osama bin Laden was trying to bring down were the governments in Riyadh and Islamabad. And bringing down the American twin towers was a way to achieve that end."
Laden's plans were derailed, however, because the war in Afghanistan has gone quite well for the Americans. Sagan hopes the suspected terrorist mastermind will similarly be wrong about the effects of a war in Iraq. "If there are large-scale Iraqi citizens killed by the United States, I think it would have a devastating effect in a number of Muslim and even non-Muslim countries. So it's crucial that this war, if it occurs, be conducted in a way that reduces collateral damage."
What can we do to reduce the risks of terrorism? The first thing is to reduce the likelihood of weapons of mass destruction in states that have the potential to give them to terrorists, or the potential to be seized by terrorists. Second, to dedicate ourselves as nuclear states to even more stringent measures to secure our weapons.
"September 11 was way beyond the criteria we had set," Sagan said. "So the US is redesigning its threat criteria, spending enormous amounts of money to figure out how to ensure that trucks taking nuclear material from one place to another do not get hijacked, to ensure that a nuclear weapons storage site or a nuclear weapons dismantling plant is not attacked, to reduce the likelihood that insiders -- that's somebody with responsibilities in this area -- does not harbour jihadi sympathies or very far-right Christian militia tendencies, or someone who is so desperate personally that they think they can sell it without getting caught."
On Iraq, his preferred solution would be similar to the one used during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. "We thought we saw someone doing something that was a grave problem to our security and threatened to use military force. We said you have to get rid of all those weapons, because if you don't we will invade."
It came perilously close to war. But a last-minute solution was worked out, there was an agreement to withdraw all the missiles, and an inspections regime, not too intrusive, was put in place. "In exchange, though we didn't like Fidel Castro, we said we will promise that we won't invade and remove you from office."
But for such a solution to be possible, the US will have to reconcile itself to the idea of seeing Saddam remain in power.
Only if this option fails, and the effort to disarm Iraq through UN inspections also fails, should force be used, Sagan said. "But my view of the last resort is further down and bit more last than the current president's assessment."