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Opinion: President Obama in the age of loose nukes

Securing the world's loose nuclear material has risen to the top of the US president's foreign policy agenda.

In a sense, Israel’s position of ambiguity has worked. By never admitting to having a bomb, pressure on neighboring Arab states to produce their own nuclear weapons was lifted. The best that can be hoped for Iran is that it will, like Israel, never admit to having the bomb; or, like Japan, stop short of the last step that would produce an actual weapon.

The problem is that nuclear weapons have become part of a nation’s prestige and the ultimate deterrent against an attack. It is very difficult to tell nations that only a privileged few can have nuclear weapons while others cannot. This is an untenable position with which to approach Iran, and it is unlikely that any amount of sanctions will check Iran’s march to a weapon of mass destruction.

Nor is there much beyond symbolism in the new pact between Russia and the U.S. to eliminate some weapons. Both will continue to have more than enough to destroy each other, and the concept of a nuclear free world is a pipe dream.

But symbols can be important, and the gesture was a convenient curtain-raiser to the far more important issue of keeping enriched uranium and plutonium out of the hands of terrorists. As the president said, terrorists need only enough to match the size of an apple to destroy any city in the world.

The 47-nation conference that ended in Washington this week was a unique effort to spotlight what has become the most dangerous prospect the world faces, the summation of all terrors. Securing the world’s loose nuclear material began and continued under previous administrations, but is rising to the top of Obama’s foreign policy agenda.

Sadly, nations put too many caveats into their agreements to ease anxiety. Russia, for example, reserves the right to drop out of the recent arms reduction treaty should America’s missile defense technology improve, which it surely will.

It seems that even A.Q. Khan refused to sell his country’s nuclear secrets to Al Qaeda, but who is to say that some scientist today, filled with religious fervor, and obsessed with the real or imagined grievances of the Muslim world, isn’t now plotting how to deliver secrets to terrorists much in the way misguided Communists delivered similar information to the Soviet Union half a century ago? Or perhaps North Korea will find a way to deal with Al Qaeda simply for money?

Huge, destructive forms still move in the dark depths even as the world seeks to control them.