WASHINGTON -- After decades of clandestine effort to develop nuclear weapons, a handful of nations with disturbing histories of aggressive behavior -- the "undeterrables," as some have called them -- are nearing technological payoff time, American analysts warn.
News that Iran has obtained a device from China for producing fissionable material was only the latest alarm bell: While fewer nations in the world are still anxious to get nuclear arms, the would-be troublemakers are moving dangerously closer to owning the weapons -- for blackmail purposes, if not for actual use.
While the end of the Cold War has all but eliminated the specter of a U.S.-Soviet nuclear Armageddon and even cast doubt on the military usefulness of nuclear weapons, the urgency in preventing their spread is "as great as ever," according to Ronald Lehman, director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.
"In a few troubled spots, like the Korean Peninsula, the Mideast and South Asia, time is running out," he says.
North Korea is considered most dangerous, now that Iraq's nuclear capability is being rooted out by U.S.-backed teams of U.N. inspectors.
Few developments would be more destabilizing for the region and the world. South Korea would immediately seek its own nuclear weapons, U.S. officials say, and Japan -- bound to the United States by defense treaty -- might do the same. China and the Soviet Union could not fail to react to such a nuclear time bomb on their borders.
Similarly, the nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan could turn their squabble over Kashmir into a nuclear catastrophe for South Asia.
And Iranian militants have proclaimed that they want to pick up the torch from Iraq for a Muslim atomic bomb, ostensibly to counter Israel's nuclear arsenal, which is believed to consist of assembly-ready components for 100 or more weapons. Tehran is also believed to be concerned about obtaining nuclear weapons to balance a resurrected Iraq down the road.
U.S. officials fear that the economic and political collapse of the Soviet Union will mean the sudden emergence of several new nuclear nations whose leaders will be totally untutored in the dangers of nuclear conflict. Equally frightening is the risk that some of Moscow's 15,000 small nuclear bombs and shells will leak into the Middle East's arms bazaars.
"If Iraq had the bomb, the gulf war would probably have been different," says Leonard Spector of the Carnegie Endowment for World Peace. "Would the Democrats in Congress have voted for the war if the nuclear danger was there?"