Nuclear Proliferation Still the Top U.S. Security Threat

The number of nuclear-armed nations is growing.

Oct. 1, 2007 — -- This week Opportunity 08 takes a closer look at the proliferation of nuclear arms, and how the next president should cope with existing and aspiring nuclear powers.

When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stood before the U.N. General Assembly last week and defended his country's nuclear program, the United States immediately pressed for new sanctions against Iran.

Nuclear proliferation is an advancing threat. Fifteen years ago, there were three undeclared nuclear weapons states -- Israel, India and Pakistan -- and five declared -- the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China. Today Iran is on track to become the 10th nation with nuclear capabilities.

In the 2004 presidential race, one thing that John Kerry and George Bush agreed on was that nuclear proliferation was the top security threat facing the United States. The 2008 candidates are likely to agree. Michael O'Hanlon, expert on proliferation and defense issues, said, "Preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction must stand at or near the apex of America's foreign policy agenda."

Right now all eyes are on Pakistan and its upcoming elections. "A weak government could lose control of the nuclear arsenal, a fragmented government could share weaponry with a radical Islamist group, or a strongly Sunni-oriented government could set off a Mideast-wide nuclear arms race to counter Iranian nuclear power," warned South Asia expert Stephen Cohen. Interestingly, as President Pervez Musharraf fights for reelection, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto is drawing heat from the Pakistani government for saying she would allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to question Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, disgraced founder of Pakistan's nuclear program.

But Pakistan isn't the only hotspot worrying experts. "Taiwan is a prospective nuclear weapon state, as is South Korea, and Japanese officials have privately talked about their own 'option,'" warned Cohen. "Elsewhere, a cluster of Middle Eastern states, led by Iran but followed by Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, may be chomping at the bit."

Dealing with North Korea would require a major international push. "The job boils down to convincing Pyongyang that it is in its interest to abandon internal repression and external threats as the basis of regime legitimacy and, instead, to morph over the next decade into a 'normal' autocracy," O'Hanlon said.

O'Hanlon and Cohen advise the next president to enhance U.S. and other nations' adherence to the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons and related international agreements, and at the same time expand threat reduction efforts and place less emphasis on the role of nuclear arms in protecting America.

A full version of this proposal, as well as supporting background material, is available at

About the Experts and the Project

Stephen P. Cohen is a senior fellow at Brookings. He is an expert on India, Pakistan, South Asian security and proliferation. He was a member of the Policy Planning Staff of the U.S. Department of State where he dealt with South Asia. In 2004 he was named one of the 500 most influential people in foreign policy by the World Affairs Councils of America.

Michael E. O'Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and specializes in Iraq, North Korea, homeland security, the use of military force and other defense issues. O'Hanlon advised members of Congress on military spending as a defense budget analyst. O'Hanlon is the director of Opportunity '08.

Opportunity 08 aims to help 2008 presidential candidates and the public focus on critical issues facing the nation, presenting policy ideas on a wide array of domestic and foreign policy questions. The project is committed to providing both independent policy solutions and background material on issues of concern to voters.