Nuclear weapons and the possibility they could fall into the hands of people crazed enough to use them constitute the biggest single security threat facing the world today. Recent developments have highlighted that risk.
First, there was the disgraceful failure to reach a new deal to toughen existing rules on nuclear proliferation and disarmament. Faced with the frightening prospect of terrorists one day acquiring a nuclear bomb, world leaders signed a convention last week making it a crime to possess nuclear materials for terrorist purposes. But they left proliferation and further disarmament off the table. Prime Minister Paul Martin said that "if we are to make the world a safer place, clearly we need a more comprehensive approach to disarmament and proliferation, and we must get on with it." Australian Prime Minister John Howard rightly summed up the outcome as a fiasco.
Then, along came Iran's truculent new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to underscore why the international community must urgently repair whatever divisions are preventing a sane, global response to the problem. Mr. Ahmadinejad laced a speech to the General Assembly with virulently anti-Western and anti-American comments. Some were so loony they called into question the man's grasp on reality. He accused the U.S. military of poisoning its own soldiers in Iraq and doubted whether the 9/11 attacks were carried out by terrorists. More to the point, he declared that Iran has no intention of abandoning its nuclear ambitions and not so subtly warned that his government could rethink its supposedly peaceful plans if sufficiently provoked. "If some try to impose their will on the Iranian people through resort to a language of force and threat with Iran, we will reconsider our entire approach to the nuclear issue."
Iran is a signatory of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which took effect in 1970 and whose central purpose was the eventual elimination of all nuclear weapons. The treaty allows for the development of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, although why an oil-rich state such as Iran should opt for costly nuclear-based power has never been adequately explained. Nor has Iran explained why it chose to surreptitiously acquire the equipment and technology necessary for uranium enrichment. Add in its regional political aspirations, the paranoia of its clerical leaders and their support for international terrorist activities and you have plenty of reasons for legitimate concern.
On another potentially dangerous nuclear front, the news is better. North Korea had previously withdrawn from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, booted out inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency and acknowledged that it had started a program to make weapons. But while Tehran continues to thumb its nose at the international community, Pyongyang finally appears willing to shut down its nuclear activities, resubmit to IAEA safeguards and permit international inspections to resume. In exchange, the impoverished country would receive desperately needed economic assistance, guaranteed energy supplies, security assurances and the diplomatic recognition craved by its leader, Kim Jong-il.
North Korea's apparent change of heart is welcome, as far it can be trusted, which isn't a lot, considering the dictatorship's past failure to live up to international commitments. But the glimmer of hope on the North Korean front is overshadowed by the increasing bellicosity of Iran's leadership. The prospect of nuclear weapons in the hands of either of these rogue regimes should stiffen the resolve of the world community to take the measures necessary to prevent such a nightmare.