In his novel Underworld, Don DeLillo describes a world born in Hiroshima and buried with the broken bricks of the Berlin Wall - a world where we all lived "in the shadow of a mushroom cloud." He shows how the possibility of nuclear annihilation hung in the air as softly as radiation after an attack, pervading politics, pop music and the everyday nightmares of everyday people.
DeLillo gets only one thing wrong: he implies that the world awoke at the end of the Cold War. As Iran nudges ever closer to enriching a nuclear warhead; as Jacques Chirac warns he may respond to a jihad attack on France with a "targeted nuclear attack" (a cruelly absurd concept); as it emerges that George Bush is developing "more useable" bunker-busting nukes, we have reached that point in the nightmare where you realise you have not woken up at all. Welcome to the Second Nuclear Age.
The best guide to this new world is Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and deserving winner of last year's Nobel Prize for Peace. He explains: "When you see more and more countries acquiring nuclear weapons, countries that do not really have sophisticated command structures ... the odds that these weapons can be used is much higher. Either we are going to have 20, 30, 40 nuclear states, or we are going to have to act differently."
There are currently eight men who have the power to incinerate you, everyone you love and millions more in a second: George Bush, Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac, Vladimir Putin, Hu Jintao, Ehud Olmert, Manmohan Singh, Pervez Musharraf, and Kim Jong Il. The world - and the IAEA - is presently fixated on the soon-to be ninth member of the nuclear club: the Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
It's not hard to see why Ahmadinejad's finger on the button is causing cold (war) sweats for ElBaradei on down. This is a man who has explicitly said that Israel - another nuclear power - should be "wiped off the map" (oh, and the Holocaust is "a myth"). He is not criticising the vicious occupation of the West Bank. He is not calling for a two-state solution and compensation for the Palestinians. He is calling for the 1948 ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians to be matched by an even-bigger ethnic cleansing of the Jews in 2006, relocating those who survive to Alaska or (this'll work) Germany.
It is not clear how much of this is merely the rhetorical sounding-off that is routine in the region. Some observers believe he really might be an Iranian Doctor Strangelove, pointing to his links with fanatical religious movements who believe the Twelfth Imam will return to earth soon in an apocalyptic clash between good and evil. When he addressed the UN General Assembly last November, he called for the "hastening" of this event, and he was later captured on film saying he believed God had hypnotised the world's leaders at that moment and left them so transfixed they "literally" did not blink throughout his 28-minute speech. (This would have dried out their corneas and made them all blind, but no doubt Allah works in mysterious ways.)
I doubt Ahmadinejad is really planning an imminent attack on Israel. But the moment Iran has nukes, an indefinite West Bank Missile Crisis will begin that could go radioactive at 15 minutes' notice.
Our leaders are scrambling for the short-term levers we can pull to prevent this happening. But there's a problem: none of them work. For three years, the world - led by the European Union - has been trying to bribe, caress and flatter Iran out of tooling up. The carrot has failed: they are proceeding anyway, and the latest talk of a compromise from Tehran sounds like a stalling operation.
But the sticks are not much better. The UN Security Council is unlikely to impose sanctions, because China or Russia will veto them. Even if they do, they will merely trigger a humanitarian disaster in Iran (remember the horrors they caused in Iraq, on top of Saddam's tyranny?) and give the regime an excuse for all the country's problems.
And Ahmadinejad has the world over an oil barrel. As the world's fourth largest oil supplier, when he says "you will regret it if you impose sanctions", he means it. He has it in his power to stage a swift sequel to the 1973 oil price shock that levelled the world economy.
Military options are hardly better. Even if Bush and Blair could persuade their electorates into another war based on WMD after the Iraq lies, a regime change strategy is not a non-proliferation strategy because - according to every reliable opinion poll - the Iranian people themselves want to get nuclear weapons by a very wide margin. Unless you are going to install a dictator - an obscene idea - then changing the Iranian government will make no difference. Even if there is a democratic revolution against the mullahs - as I hope - the drive towards nuclear weapons will not be affected. Nor will Israeli military strikes work: there are more than 40 nuclear facilities scattered across Iran, many so far underground they cannot be reached by bombs.
So it is time to take a deep breath, realise that Iran is going to go nuclear in the next few years, and look to long-term solutions. Here we need to go back to ElBaradei who, as head of the IAEA, is also keeper of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). This treaty was created in the 1960s after the world started Armageddon in the face during the Kennedy-Khrushchev stand-off.
It was based on a blunt bargain: the existing nuclear powers would slowly, gradually reduce their nuclear arsenals in lockstep - monitored by the IAEA - and in return nobody else would try to tool up. Nobody ever officially repudiated the NPT - but all sides have used it as toilet paper, with the US developing an ever-mightier arsenal, India being officially welcomed to the club with no penalties, and Tony Blair currently polishing a new Trident.
The NPT is our only safe route out of the Second Nuclear Age. As ElBaradei puts it: "The big boys need to understand that the major league is not an exclusive club. If you are not going to gradually dissolve the club, others are going to join." We can cling to our arsenals with jealous pride as more and more countries build their own, until one day - next year, next decade, next century - the weapons are used.
Or we - the people of the democratic world - can begin to force our governments to actually follow the treaty they have signed up to, and start a process of binding multilateral nuclear disarmament, policed by a beefed-up IAEA, locking in every nuclear power including Iran. The only possible context in which Iran might give up on its nuclear ambitions is where other countries are dismantling theirs.
Otherwise, we will live in the shadow of the mushroom cloud for the rest of our lives - and millions may die there.Reuse content