Two events last week underline the reason for continuing concern about Iran’s nuclear intentions. One was the Iranian claim that it had successfully test-fired a missile not detectable by radar, which can use multiple warheads to hit several targets simultaneously. The Fajr-3 is claimed by Iranian sources to have a range capable of reaching Israel and American bases in the Middle East.

The second event, disclosed at a US congressional hearing, was that in a test by government investigators, they were able to smuggle into the country enough radioactive material to make two “dirty” bombs. In the test last December, the investigators managed to sneak small amounts of such material across US border crossing points in Washington and Texas. Radiation alarms went off, but inspectors were fooled by phoney documents and allowed the material through. If the investigators could do it, terrorists might be able to do so as well.

The Iranian position is that it will pursue a nuclear programme for peaceful purposes only. The West does not believe that as Iran has a long record of duplicity about its nuclear intentions. The possibility that Iran, under an erratic regime, could build and possess a nuclear bomb is itself a cause for concern. However, the possibility that such a weapon could fall into the hands of terrorists who have been supported by Iran is of much greater concern.

If rogue nations like Iran and North Korea should even think of using such a weapon themselves against the US, its military forces, or allies such as Israel, they would have to confront the certainty of devastating US retaliation. The retaliation would likely be as awesome if it were clear that they had given the bomb to terrorists.

We know that terrorists like Al Qaeda have expressed interest in acquiring a nuclear bomb. To do so, their options are to steal it, to buy it, or to build it, perhaps with the know-how and cooperation of a nation like Iran, friendly to their ambitions.

In a new study of the threat of catastrophic nuclear terrorism and steps to prevent it, Charles Ferguson, a scientist expert on nuclear safety issues, says that some 27,000 nuclear weapons presently exist in the arsenals of eight nations — Britain, China, France, India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia, and the US. His report says the existing nuclear weapons are generally securely guarded, hard to steal, and would be difficult to activate without access to sophisticated codes for arming and firing them. But there are concerns about the security of nuclear weapons in Pakistan, whose former leading nuclear weapons expert, Dr A Q Khan, sold nuclear weapons programmes to Iran, Libya, and North Korea. And a coup in Pakistan might install officials sympathetic to terrorist causes. Also of concern are Russian tactical nuclear weapons, especially some that are relatively portable, that may not possess internal security mechanisms, and are not in secure central storage. Clearly, the development of nuclear weapons in Iran, with its long-time sponsorship of terrorism, would raise a host of similar questions.

Ferguson’s report says at least one terrorist group has tried to enrich uranium, but the process is extremely challenging and it failed. Enriching uranium or making plutonium is currently beyond the capability of terrorists without state sponsorship. — The Christian Science Monitor