By Shibil Siddiqi
American President Barack Obama gathered 47 national delegations for the first Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) in Washington on April 12 and 13. It was the largest gathering of world leaders in Washington since the close of World War II. The scale of the summit was meant to impress the gravity of the subject matter.
In Obama's words, "This is an unprecedented gathering to address an unprecedented threat": the prevention of nuclear terrorism. In trademark style, Obama offered rhetorical flourishes to fit the occasion: "Two decades after the Cold War we face a cruel irony of history. The risk of nuclear confrontation between nations has gone down, but the risk of nuclear attack as gone up". The president said that a tiny scrap of plutonium the size of an apple was now the biggest threat to world stability, with "just the tiniest amount of plutonium" in the wrong hands posing potential for catastrophe.
However, the president's assessment of global nuclear threats paper over some basic realities. The threat of nuclear confrontation remains dangerously high despite the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) with Russia and America's passive-aggressive Nuclear Posture Review. This is particularly true along the nuclear fault-lines in the Middle East and South Asia which have existed since the Cold War. Perhaps a "dirty bomb" made out of a handful of plutonium or other radiological material forms the most significant "nuclear" threat to the US. But outside of this Western-centric world-view, it is the threat of nuclear attack or exchange in the Middle East and South Asia - home to nearly a fourth of the world's population - that clearly remains the largest global nuclear threat.
In actuality, the threat of terrorists acquiring a working nuclear device are relatively remote. Building nuclear weapons is a complex and resource intensive business; if it were not, more countries would already possess them.
That leaves the option of stealing a weapon. But pilfering a nuclear weapon is not simply a case of planning a sophisticated smash-and-grab operation. Nuclear weapons have multi-layered security systems, both technological and human. For example, access to nuclear facilities and weapons follows strict chains of command. Warheads are usually stored in several different pieces that require a cross-expertise and technical sophistication to assemble. In addition, they employ security features called Permissive Action Links (PAL) that use either external enabling devices or advanced encryption to secure the weapon. Older security systems include anti-tamper devices capable of exploding the device without a nuclear chain reaction. Not to mention that effectively delivering a nuclear device comes with its own hefty challenges. Thus, there are many serious obstacles to terrorists actually obtaining and setting off a nuclear bomb.
There is, however, a distinct possibility that fissile materials could fall into the hands of terrorists. It would not be a first. Chechen rebels planted crude "dirty bombs" as early as 1995 and 1998. Neither device was detonated and the rebels provided advance warning to the authorities. But they did succeed in terrorizing the general population. Further, in 2007 a nuclear facility in South Africa was attacked twice, but the attackers were repelled before they were able to get any nuclear materials or intelligence on the computer systems. The prime suspects for the end buyers in these attacks are states - primarily Pakistan. Still, an active and lucrative trade in smuggling nuclear materials and technologies makes further such attacks likely.
But strictly speaking, setting off a dirty bomb is not the same as "nuclear terrorism". A dirty bomb does not involve a devastating nuclear chain reaction. It simply disperses (usually with the aid of conventional explosives) fissile or radiological materials. Such a bomb could potentially cover a relatively large area with radiological material. However, many experts, including the US Department of Energy, have noted that the fallout from such a bomb would not necessarily lead to fatal radiation exposure.
Yet clearly a dirty bomb is a terror weapon simply because it so easily inspires terror. It has the potential to induce serious ill-health in a large population in the medium and long-term, render areas unhabitable and unproductive for long periods of time and would produce psychological effects in the victims and for anyone wanting to resettle in the affected areas.
But the effects of such a bomb would pale in comparison to even a limited exchange of nuclear weapons. Such a nuclear war still remains plausible.
Faultline: Middle East
Israel is the only country in the Middle East to possess nuclear weapons, though it does not officially admit to having any under a policy of "nuclear opacity". Israel acquired the capacity to manufacture nuclear weapons in the mid-1960s. An intelligence estimate by the Central Intelligence Agency from 1967 - the year of the Six Day Arab-Israeli War - states that Israel had already acquired the capability to manufacture a number of nuclear warheads. Israeli warplanes were fitted for delivering nuclear weapons during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Of course, this war also generated a nuclear stand-off between the US and the Soviet Union.
Israel's proliferation record is also on par with or perhaps even surpasses that of Pakistan. In addition to joint testing, Israel is thought to have provided South Africa with up to six functional nuclear warheads in the 1970s - the only known instance of a country simply giving nuclear weapons to another.
Israel presently possesses an estimated 400 nuclear weapons, from powerful thermonuclear devices to tactical or "battlefield" nukes. Its nuclear doctrine embraces not only a "first strike" posture but also one of "preemptive strike" against a conventional or unconventional attack on any of its weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, chemical or biological). It is also committed to maintaining nuclear superiority by preventing any other Middle Eastern country from obtaining nuclear weapons. It has already employed conventional attacks and assassinations to prevent such an outcome.
Further, according to investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, faced with an existential threat Israel's nuclear doctrine includes the so-called "Samson Option": a massive nuclear assault against the nations threatening Israel. It was thus named by Israeli leaders of the stature of David Ben-Gurion, Shimon Peres and Moshe Dayan for the Biblical figure of Samson who brought down a Philistine temple, killing himself and hundreds of Philistines gathered there.
Israel remains in constant conflict with its neighbors, providing any number of potential triggers of nuclear conflict. It barely disguises its intention to reject any peace plan with the Palestinians that would require it to end its occupation. Tensions between Israel and the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon remain high. Israel recently attempted to goad negotiations with Syria over the occupied Golan Heights by threatening to go to war with it. This brought on a joint declaration of mutual assistance by Syria and Iran to intervene if either one of them is attacked. And of course, Israel remains unconvinced that "crippling sanctions" against Iran's nuclear program will materialize and thus, has pushed for attacking Iranian nuclear facilities both publicly and privately. With Iran forging ahead with its program despite American pressure, it remains to be seen how a nearly-nuclear Iran will interplay with Israeli nuclear doctrine.
Faultline: South Asia
The other likely region for a nuclear exchange is in South Asia, where regional rivals India and Pakistan possess the world's fastest growing nuclear arsenal.
India conducted its first nuclear test in 1974. This prompted Pakistan to publicly own up to its own nuclear weapons program that had secretly begun two years prior. Pakistan acquired nuclear weapons capability in the late 1980s with the quiet acquiescence of the US. The US found it convenient to ignore Pakistan's nuclear weapons program while the country was the "frontline" state in the American-sponsored jihad against the Red Army in Afghanistan. Washington imposed sanctions in 1990, only after credible intelligence assessments indicated that Pakistan had already manufactured a bomb. India conducted another series of nuclear tests in 1998 and this time Pakistan was able to follow suit.
Both India and Pakistan possess an estimated 80 to 120 nuclear warheads, though the actual numbers may be higher, particularly for India. Pakistan has a "first use" policy in the face of a large conventional losses, whereas the more powerful India prescribes to a "no first use" nuclear doctrine.
Pakistan has already displayed the most reckless nuclear brinkmanship since the Cuban Missiles Crisis. In 1999, its army incited a war in Kargil in Indian-occupied Kashmir. As the conflict escalated with the Indian Air Force being engaged, Pakistan's mobile nuclear missile launchers were allegedly put on alert. Then army chief General Pervez Musharraf believed that a potential nuclear conflict would successfully "internationalize" the Kashmir imbroglio (he was dangerously wrong). Both countries' nuclear arsenals were similarly put on alert during their tense 2002 stand-off brought on by a terrorist attack on Indian Parliament.
Unlike Israel and South Africa, which officially stayed mum about their nuclear weapons, both the Indian and Pakistani tests were publicly celebrated as VIP passes into the exclusive nuclear club. Except neither country was accepted as a legitimate nuclear power. International sanctions quickly followed against both countries, with Pakistani sanctions being more stringent.
But this changed with a deepening America-India alliance under former US president George W Bush. India became the most prominent counter-point in designs to ring China with American allies. This resulted in a civilian nuclear deal under the so-called 123 Agreement, making India the only country in the world that can engage in nuclear commerce without being a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. India can now use its older reactors not covered by the deal almost exclusively for its weapons program.
This has fuelled a renewed nuclear weapons race with Pakistan, which has been seeking a similar civilian nuclear deal from the US and China. The topic figured prominently in the recent Pakistani delegation to Washington for the US-Pakistan "Strategic Dialogue" and the issue has taken on a greater urgency for Pakistan since the "leak" of India's new "Cold Start" military doctrine late last year. Cold Start involves rapid and massive offensives against Pakistan (and China). Pakistan's army chief has responded with a veiled but unambiguous threat that the country would use nuclear weapons in the case of such a conflict. Just as terrifying as Pakistan's response is that Cold Start actually anticipates a nuclear war. Thus, the South Asian region teeters along the precipice of an unimaginable conflict even as the nuclear arms race is being escalated through the US-India partnership.
Knocking down the straw man
This week's nuclear summit in Washington is a big summit about a relatively little problem when it comes to the question of nuclear disarmament. It is no doubt a positive achievement and will be all the more so if it leads to some kind of treaty to regulate and limit fissile material. But this essentially sets up and then effectively knocks down a straw man - that of "nuclear terrorism", an issue that everyone already agrees upon anyway. The fanfare of the summit effectively deflects the problem of nuclear disarmament and locates the threat of nuclear Armageddon in the wrong place. When it comes to nuclear weapons, the threat of inter-state conflict far outweighs the dangers posed by non-state actors.
But perhaps this is the intent. In dealing with foreign relations, Obama's presidency has simply brought a new style to a substantively same policy direction. The nuclear arsenals of Israel, India and Pakistan maintain strategic balances that are favorable to the US. Little surprise that conversations about the clear and present danger that these strategic American allies present are kept on the back-burner.
Shibil Siddiqi is a Fellow with the Center for the Study of Global Power and Politics at Trent University and a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus, the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives and ZNet.