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Professor Jonathan Adelman

Over two dozen countries have aspired to become nuclear powers in the post-1945 era but the majority have not succeeded. Former Soviet republics such as Ukraine and Belarus already had thousands of nuclear weapons from the Soviet era but seeking to integrate into Europe, lacking the money or technical expertise to maintain these expensive weapons, and not possessing a strong state identity, these new states forfeited their nuclear weapons in favor of becoming players in the post-Soviet era.

Taiwan and Japan, dependent on American and Western support against a far bigger China, essentially yielded to pressure from its allies. Egypt, Syria and Algeria all went part of the way down the road before succumbing to the huge costs and lack of technical capabilities so necessary for a nuclear power. Iraq’s capabilities, developed under Saddam Hussein, were stopped by an Israeli attack on the nuclear facilities in 1981 and the Second Persian Gulf War in 2003. Libya’s nuclear program under Muammar Qaddafi was stopped by his fear of the American triumph in 2003. South Africa, having created several atomic bombs under its white-dominated regime, yielded to the rise of a black majority country. Latin American countries, such as Brazil and Argentina, started down the road but eventually abandoned their efforts.

Eight nuclear powers have emerged in the post-war era. Russia, the United States and China emerged as they developed as major powers, while European countries (England and France) and emerging Asian states (India and Pakistan) went nuclear.

In the second decade of the 21st century, North Korea and the Islamic Republic of Iran have emerged — one as a nascent nuclear power (North Korea) and the other as an aspiring nuclear power (Iran).

Both were part of the “axis of evil” of three countries (the third was Saddam Hussein’s Iraq) that, in President Bush’s words, meant they were rogue pariah states.The two countries share a number of common factors: disdain for international law, insecure neighbors, weak economic development, common enemies, dislike for Western powers and ideologies (democracy, rule of law, popular election), a willingness to destroy other countries and stress on development of nuclear weapons.

Each state also has serious enemies inside and outside their region. Both North Korea and Iran saw significant threats to their existence, led by the United States, their superpower enemy. Each faces regional enemies as well. North Korea faces a far richer South Korea and Japan (but without nuclear weapons) as well as an ambivalent Chinese policy. Too, Iran desperately needs North Korean nuclear and technical capability to be a serious player and threat in the region.

As for Iran, it faces a militarily strong Israel with 100 nuclear weapons, a more modern military and more sophisticated air force with 700 planes. Israel also has the most modern anti-ballistic missile missiles developed with the United States: Iron Dome , David’s Sling and Arrow 3. In addition, the Sunni world — Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates — while traditionally anti-Israel, has now embraced Israel in the spirit of the Indian view from 2,400 years ago: “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” They now see Iran as the Shiite menace to their Sunni power.

Today the Iranians have, with North Korea’s help, duplicated the miniature submarines Yono-class and the BM-25 Musudan class ICBMs that are capable of travelling 2,500 miles and could hit Hawaii. The relationship between North Korea and Iran has become so tight that nuclear weapons and missiles in North Korea would rapidly be duplicated in Iran.

All this leaves the United States and its allies in a difficult position. The road to peace is unclear. A strong nuclear arsenal in North Korea and Iran by 2020 or 2025 could threaten the very existence of American allies in the Middle East and East Asia and even threaten part of the United States itself. Another agreement with North Korea like that reached under President Clinton or the nuclear deal reached with Iran under President Obama could be fatal to the ultimate cause of peace.

What to do? The only thing worse would be to allow these anti-democratic harsh and hostile regimes to grow their nuclear arsenals to the point that they could dominate these vital areas. Only one thing is clear: the threats to peace in key areas of the world are worse than any time since 1991 and even possibly 1945.