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17.05.2006. New nuclear era beset with old threats

The row over Iran's nuclear program will have major repercussions for Russia. It concerns this country's vital interests, and even its very survival. For all that, this row should not eclipse a more general problem of nuclear weapons proliferation, which has become a reality.

The situation in Pakistan probably presents the worst threat of proliferation, and bears the highest risk of nuclear weapons slipping into the hands of terrorists or other states. Celebrating the end of the Cold War, the world leaders, above all, the United States, missed the moment when India and Pakistan obtained nuclear arms. Since then the world has gone at least once through nuclear brinkmanship, and has seen half a dozen attempts to assassinate President Musharraf, a guarantor of relative stability in Pakistan. It has transpired that even under a comparatively tough pro-Western regime, and apparently not without its knowledge, Pakistan has turned into a secret bazaar of nuclear technologies, which it has been selling to almost all countries suspected of nuclear ambitions. Meanwhile, Pakistan with its exacerbating social problems resembles a seething pot which may explode any moment. If it does, nobody can tell, where Pakistani nuclear warheads may land.

North Korea has most probably already obtained several nuclear warheads. The world's feeble efforts did not frustrate Pyongyang's all-out effort to become nuclear. According to many sources, North Korea has also been selling dangerous technologies to whoever wanted to buy them. Blackmailing the world with its collapse, and receiving relief to keep afloat, the regime has so far managed to control the situation.

Finally, having dragged out the time, Iran itself has reached the point when it will be able to produce nuclear weapons in three, six, or nine years. Will the world community be able to convince Tehran that it will gain more by giving up this potential capability, and getting rid of the stigma of a semi-rogue state? The world is unlikely to offer Iran a convincing enough selection of carrots. As for the radicals in Tehran, they seem to rejoice at the sight of the coercive stick.

Considering the radicalism of the current leaders, it is not clear whether they will consider in real earnest the «big deal,» which provides not only for sanctions —- the stick, but also for carrots — the removal of overt and tacit economic sanctions, withdrawal from international semi-isolation, and granting of multilateral security guarantees. The time for offering the deal is running out fast unless the current U.S. Administration decides to leave the Iranian problem to its successors. Otherwise, it will get into a mad rush, conducive to the use of force in the next 12-15 months.

The bad situation is being made worse by the erosion of the nuclear non-proliferation regime, which worked quite well in the Cold War era. The U.S. has dealt the latest blow at it by unilaterally announcing the start of large-scale nuclear cooperation with India, and thereby accepting its nuclear status. There are almost no arguments left to buttress the idea of why other countries do not have the right to obtain nuclear weapons. The assurances that being a democracy India poses no threat as a nuclear power do not sound convincing for regimes with nuclear ambitions.

U.S. actions are a symptom of another alarming trend. The hopes for setting up an effective coalition of powerful and responsible nations, a new international concert aimed not against revolutions and strife as in the 19th century, but against nuclear proliferation, terrorism and other new threats to international security are becoming increasingly vague. (I wish I were wrong on this score).

The traditional geo-political and geo-economic rivalry is mounting. In history, it inevitably fuelled political confrontations, and sometimes ended in wars. The current round of struggle for energy carriers is a powerful catalyst of this rivalry. (It may weaken in a few years with the development of heavily funded new deposits, and energy saving, but not necessarily).

Protectionist trends in the world economy are mounting before our eyes. WTO talks on trade liberalization have obviously deadlocked for months, if not for years. Nationalistic attitudes are on the upsurge in the developing region of East and South East Asia. Destabilizing trends are gaining ground in the stagnating «greater Middle East.» Even the losses inflicted on the U.S. by its Iraqi blunder have not convinced it to give up its unilateral approach. Europe, engulfed in the crisis of leadership and development models, is increasingly withdrawing into its shell.

The United Nations and other multilateral instruments of settling international disputes and preventing wars are losing power.

Against this background, the likelihood of new countries gaining access to nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction is becoming more and more realistic. This trend may even trigger off a chain reaction in East Asia and the Middle East in the next 5-10 years.

In principle, nuclear weapons have a civilizing effect on the elites of the nuclear powers. This was true of the Soviet Union and the United States, and is now the case with new nuclear countries. The awareness of the risks involved in the use of nuclear weapons gradually flushed out the more radical figures and ideas from their governments. But this process took from 15 to 20 years, and put the world on the edge of the nuclear abyss more than once.

The new nuclear age, which may start with the cascade of nuclear proliferation, can become even more dangerous than the first 20 years after World War II. Divided by mutual suspicions and contradictions, and lacking the schooling of the Cold War two-camp discipline, many countries can gain access to nuclear weapons simultaneously. This will create a situation of «multi-vector nuclear confrontation,» which is bound to be less stable than the bipolar rivalry. Fear and suspicion, as well as the risk of conflicts involving the use of nuclear weapons, will continue increasing for a long time to come. This «transitional period» may be of indefinite duration.

Russia is located close to two major high-risk regions — the Middle East and East Asia. What should it do in this situation, especially considering that international relations are getting out of control, while nationalist egotism, traditionalist approaches, and inability to respond to new threats and challenges have so far prevailed over common interests?

To start with, Russia should try to protect itself as much as it can. It will have to dovetail its defense doctrine with a multilateral nuclear deterrent. It will probably have to go for a limited upgrading of its nuclear and other weapons in order to make flexible their potential use. It is worth looking into the idea of building a regional anti-ballistic missile capability (previously called theatre anti-missile defense). It is all the more sensible, since we have kept the technologies, and, judging by all, the international demand for anti-missile systems will be growing fast.

Needless to say, Russia should avoid a new arms race, which will kill it sooner than any other outside threat.

Clearly, a package of these and similar unilateral measures tailored to the worst-case scenario (which is becoming increasingly probable) is relatively ineffective, and is no more than a backup solution.

Secondly, for this reason we should spare no effort in promoting the idea of a strategic alliance, a «new concert of nations» in the new century, which would prevent the spread of nuclear weapons to more countries and terrorists, stop the dissemination of extreme nationalistic and religious views, and deal with other challenges of the early 21st century.

Experts, including the author of this article, have been suggesting different versions of this idea for more than a decade now. It still remains on paper. As this article suggests, today I'm quite skeptical about the prospects of the proposed alliance.

But this idea is even more relevant now than it was in the early 1990s. It should not be sacrificed to the common evil of the suicidal traditionalism and unilateralism. It should be reiterated again and again. Apparently, the leaders of the potential members of the said alliance should discuss this idea at the forthcoming G8 summit.

Russia's idea of energy security is useful, but agreement on many relevant issues will be hard to achieve. The differences between the interests of Russia as a supplier of energy and its consumers are too big. In perspective, the idea of a new strategic alliance is at least equally important. Proliferation of nuclear weapons (in the context of the Iranian problem) will feature prominently at the summit in St. Petersburg. It is worth using this opportunity. Otherwise, the advent of a new nuclear era will become even more likely, and nations will have to join it one by one. As a result, they may land in a disaster, which they managed to avoid in the first nuclear era.

// RIA Novosti