It seems more likely that Iran may pass on primitive (dirty) nuclear material to a client such as Hizbollah, on the assumption that it would emphatically deny its involvement, that such a transaction could not be easily traced and that it would therefore not have to suffer major consequences. Iran would have international law on its side, because a majority of UN member states would ask for a careful investigation, which, needless to say, would lead nowhere. However, such a course of action is also not without its dangers. Once such weapons have been transferred to another party, the sponsor loses control. While the US might be deflected from reacting immediately, Israel might have fewer inhibitions.
The arrival of an Iranian bomb now seems highly likely since there exists no determination to prevent it. But a nuclear Iran will almost certainly lead to the acquisition of WMD in other Middle Eastern countries. There is furthermore the worrisome issue of the Pakistani atomic bombs. There is an almost indefinite number of scenarios and while some countries are more likely targets than others, none can be certain that it will be exempt.
Graham Allison, a Harvard professor, asked in Foreign Policy in January: why the failure to imagine the worst? If Obama, in his very first speech to the Security Council, was so outspoken about the likely consequences of exploding a single nuclear bomb, why has this not been followed up by action? Partly, no doubt, because he addressed the wrong audience. But what if he had spoken to Nato or the American people?
It is part of human nature to suppress unpleasant and painful information, especially if there is no certainty that impending danger can be prevented. Not all the arguments of the sceptics can be dismissed out of hand. To obtain fissile material is not easy, nor is the construction of a nuclear device. It is quite likely that the first attempts to construct a bomb and detonate it will fail — and this would set global alarm bells ringing. It is not certain that within three years terrorists will have a nuclear bomb and set it off. It may take five, or even seven, years. As Dr Johnson said, nothing focuses the mind so much as the certain knowledge of a hanging. But if the period of grace is not a day, but five years, this does not necessarily focus the mind — perhaps something will turn up — especially not the awareness of politicians who are elected for only four years.
At this point the issue of leadership becomes of crucial importance. To gain time is important. Terrorism will not disappear in the foreseeable future but fanaticism does run in waves; it does not persist forever with equal intensity. A more conciliatory tone as suggested by Obama may be important but gaining respect is at least as decisive. Terrorists should not be led into temptation; they should not think that it is less risky to attack the US than China or Russia.
Soft power is important and has been neglected in the past. It is certainly laudable to counter the ideology behind WMD terrorism. But this also means making use of the weaknesses of an antagonist. One such weakness is the almost unlimited willingness of the Islamists (and of fanatics in general) to believe in conspiracy theories, however absurd. About 70 per cent of Islamists believe that 9/11 was carried out by elements within the American government and that the suicide attacks in Pakistan are committed by the CIA (or Mossad or Indian intelligence) rather than the Taliban. Use can and should be made of this proclivity.
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