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Elhefnawy: The Next Wave of Nuclear Proliferation, Regional Considerations

While it barely generates the media attention that Iran or North Koreahas during the past few years, there are leaders in Latin America, South America to be exact, who have hinted that nuclear weaponization programs are a “right” of developing countries.   Despite public acts to the country such as signing on to key non-proliferation treaties or agreements, as well as  making the perfunctory diplomatic statements on non-proliferation, it is not clear that Brazil and Venezuela have completely abandoned nuclear weapons research.  In some cases, it is quite the opposite.

In an article published in the most recent edition of the U.S. Army War College publication, Parameters, Nader Elhefnawy writes about The Next Wave of Nuclear Proliferation.   While I do not agree with all of his conclusions, it provides a good overview of the nuclear proliferation challenges for the very near future and some thoughtful recommendations on how to start tackling this challenge, including in places such as South America.

If you are a frequent reader of this site, you know that I have penned a few general items about Brazil’s muddy record on nuclear transparency.  Latin America has already had a mini-nuclear technological race fueled by Brazil and Argentina.  Argentina has generally come clean on this matter, yet crucial questions remain regarding Brazil’s commitment on weaponization.  As I wrote in October, “[t]he U.S. and regional powers need to ensure that the South American nuclear genie stays in the bottle.”

As Elhefnawy reminds readers, “long-established research strongly indicates that the motivation to build nuclear weapons is more of a factor than simply achieving the technological capacity … [t]he relative ease with which the weapons might be built is proof of this; a program to develop a minimal capability from scratch could cost as little as $500 million, less than the price of a modern warship.”

Among friends and allies, it is not impolite to raise tough issues.  Brazil has obligations as a growing economic power in the region that go beyond traditional hemispheric issues such as expanding free trade, rule of law, and combating the illegal drug trade or terrorism.  With vast uranium reserves, an advanced propulsion program, as well as a military-run and managed civilian nuclear program, Brazil needs to come clean on its nuclear ambitions. 

“Were nuclear energy used to substantially compensate for the shortfall in oil and other fossil fuels, it holds the possibility for taxing the current nonproliferation regime’s surveillance and enforcement mechanisms beyond their breaking point,”  Elhefnawy writes.  One way to ensure that this does not happen is to encourage countries that pose potential challenges in this area  to fully disclose its programs to international inspectors.  In the case of Brazil, the U.S. needs to lead and ensure that transparency rules the day. 

The next Administration will have a unique opportunity to re-craft U.S. policy in the Americas.  It must add non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and nuclear technology to the mix of priority issues.  Topping that list should be Brazil.  We should not mince words, Brazil cannot have a nuclear weapon.  In return for increasing inspections by the IAEA, we should work closely with Brazil to improve its civilian power sector, ensuring that foreign powers such as the Russians, do not become nuclear players in the Western Hemisphere.

The Bush Administration has done a good job in laying a foundation for the incoming Administration.  Despite ideological differences between the two leaders, President Bush and President DaSilva have reached agreements in various areas of importance to both countries including in such areas as biofuels, regional security, and combatting terrorism. While non-proliferation has been discussed, Brazil’s needs to do better.   Brazil’s support of the Iranian nuclear program should, and facilitating Iran’s entry in the Americas, should also be on the table. 

If Brazil has nothing to hide, and the U.S. approaches this matter in a calibrated but no-nonsense manner, this process should go smoothly.  However, if Brazil refuses to cooperate, the U.S. should be prepared to take appropriate bilateral and multilateral responses that may include restricting trade and imposing limited economic sanctions in key sectors.  These measures should remain in place until Brazil has demonstrated it has abandoned the weaponization of nuclear technology.

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