Westerners' distress over Iraq's prowess in developing nuclear arms is understandable, though belated. What is so stunning is how rapidly Iraq's determination to possess a nuclear arsenal overcame the practical difficulties Western experts expected to act as a natural bar.
Information long in the public domain was collected, analyzed and extended. Early nuclear-age technology was updated. Suppliers of equipment, chemicals and base materials needed to produce nuclear arms were recruited, suborned or deceived into cooperating. Weapons to deliver nuclear warheads were being developed, some by improving less-capable designs and others by subterfuge.
Two key factors drove Iraq's program: Western greed and the longstanding rhetoric of the Cold War. The first is demonstrated by the companies whose equipment, supplies and skills were found in Iraq's stockpile. Mere urging could not check the commercial zeal that prompted British firms to help build the jumbo cannon the Iraqis constructed in the desert, or the complete disregard shown by the German and American computer firms, chemical makers and other suppliers whose backing moved Iraq's ambitions forward.
It is also plain that the Cold War's "mutual assured destruction" logic was attractive to would-be joiners of the nuclear club. Both the United States and the Soviet Union, bitter rivals after World War II, repeatedly told the world the bulwark of European peace was the deterrence of the nuclear umbrella. If the technology was hard to assimilate, the logical conclusion for would-be players on the world stage was easy to see: even a superpower would back off from a nuclear bomb.
Look again at the nuclear complex North Korea operates north of Pyongyang. That nation cannot have forgotten its bitter war against U.S.-led forces 40 years ago or the crisis Soviet missiles sparked in Cuba. And the Israeli "Samson Option" detailed by Seymour Hersh is clearly directed at shifting the balance of superpower decision-making. The plans of other Third World nations, though deeply skewed by local rivalries, show similar motivation.
What's needed is a renewed emphasis by the industrial nations on halting the spread of mass-destruction weaponry. Nuclear powers such as China must be brought into the non-proliferation club. Sanctions against countries found to be developing nuclear arms must be strengthened even as laws are tightened to dissuade individual companies from violating the ban on weapons technology transfer. The vast apparatus of technological intelligence gathering, heretofore focused exclusively on superpower secrets, must begin to highlight nuclear activity anywhere. The nuclear genie's reach can be curtailed, as recent superpower stand-downs show. But it will take the active will of all the world's peoples to prevent its spread into areas previously not targeted by Cold War warheads.