The second-best solution was stopping nuclear contagion. The 1968 nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) restricted weapons to the five that had them. They promised they would not transfer nuclear technology. Others, reassured that opponents and potential enemies would not go nuclear, promised to stay non-nuclear.

With little conviction, the nuclear five also pledged they would start reducing weapons stockpiles. Every trick was used to disguise increases in their nuclear capability. Submarines capable of firing nuclear missiles were built. But test bans held.

The system leaked. In the early 1950s, the UK secretly agreed to help Israel acquire the bomb. The Soviet Union placed tactical nuclear weapons in Eastern Europe. Washington had unannounced agreements to deploy nuclear weapons in other NATO states. Some were placed on ships during the Vietnam war.

Realpolitik

There was no prohibition on peaceful nuclear programmes. Israel, India, North Korea and apartheid South Africa charged through the loophole. For the nuclear powers, the dilemma was whether to help or hinder them. Principle usually came second to realpolitik as nuclear power spread.

By the end of the 1960s, Israel had the bomb. India, also not an NPT signatory, went nuclear in 1974, radically altering the power balance in South Asia. Israel supported South Africa’s nuclear programme before the coming of majority rule. Pakistan did the research, but did not test its bomb until 1998. Non-proliferation was beginning to disintegrate.

The bright moment for the anti-nuclear movement came with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Hopes glimmered of a big reduction in nuclear weapons. Both the US and Russia scrapped missiles, but only a fraction of their stocks. South Africa under President Mandela renounced nuclear weapons. Most plans for new nuclear power stations had been killed following the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

The pessimists said it could not last and argued that ‘rogue states’ would get the bomb, perhaps from former Soviet states. They raised fears of nuclear terror gangs.

These legitimate concerns were tapped to justify the disastrous next chapter. Under domestic pressure following the 9/11 attacks, President Bush declared that measures against nuclear proliferation were failing and named Iran, Iraq and North Korea as the prime culprits.

The effectiveness of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was challenged. UN Iraq weapons inspector Hans Blix was undermined. The US attacked Iraq, which had no atomic weapons, and threatened Iran, which had halted its nuclear power programme. North Korea, where the real threat lay, was told off and told lies.

The consequences are now fully formed. Pyongyang has destroyed the anti-proliferation system. Some US thinkers will not be displeased. They believe the NPT prevents the US taking independent steps to ensure its global nuclear pre-eminence.

There is more bad news for anti-nuclear campaigners. The nuclear power freeze is thawing. The UK and US governments indicate nuclear energy now has a role. Where they go, others are bound to follow, particularly at a time of uncertainty about long-term energy security.

Co-ordinated approach

In these circumstances, Iran’s plans may be just the first in a new generation of atomic initiatives in the Middle East and elsewhere. In August, GCC secretary-general Abdulrahman al-Attiyah called for a co-ordinated regional approach. This conflicted with statements from other GCC leaders that even peaceful nuclear projects were unwarranted. In September, Gamal Mubarak, son of Egypt’s President Mubarak, called for the resumption of the country’s civil nuclear programme. It is a sign of the times that the proposal appears to be designed to bolster Gamal’s credentials as his father’s successor. Nuclear is popular.

There is more than one reason why atom bombs and power are back on the world’s agenda. They are not all bad ones. But the nuclear genie has escaped the bottle. The days of preparing for nuclear attack or disaster have returned. With global nuclear restraint in the rubbish bin, regional initiatives matter more. The Middle East needs to remove its rose-tinted spectacles and forge a coherent response. And if you are not worried, you should be.