(RFE/RL) -- The outgoing head of the United Nations' nuclear watchdog has warned that 10-20 countries could soon develop the capacity to build nuclear weapons.
In an interview with Britain's "The Guardian" newspaper, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Muhammad el-Baradei suggested that the current international regime for limiting the spread of nuclear weapons, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), is in danger of falling apart.
El-Baradei said the number of potential nuclear weapons states could more than double in a few years unless major powers take radical steps toward disarmament.
The IAEA chief described an emerging scenario of "virtual nuclear" countries that could develop the means and know-how to build a nuclear weapon, but still comply with the NPT by holding back on actually building weapons. He said that would create a situation where the world has many states that would be able to build nuclear weapons in just a few months time if they eventually chose to do so.
El-Baradei also told "The Guardian" that the threat of nuclear proliferation is particularly serious in the Middle East -- a region he described as a "ticking bomb."
The interview comes as the NPT Preparatory Committee completes two weeks of meetings at UN headquarters on how to revise the global nonproliferation treaty.
It also comes as El-Baradei, who has headed the IAEA for more than 11 years, prepares to step down from the post in November.
IAEA member states are now locked in a political battle over who will be el-Baradei's successor. Ultimately, that successor will inherit the role of overseeing the global nuclear-arms-control system.
Revising The NPT
Meanwhile, el-Baradei has called recently for revisions to the NPT. "It is, in my view, an opportune time to review the whole nonproliferation regime, which we brought into force in 1970 with the aim that we have to establish a world free from nuclear weapons," he said in March.
The NPT was created at the height of the Cold War with the goal of preventing countries other than the then five nuclear powers from obtaining the ability to build nuclear weapons. Other pillars of the treaty are nuclear disarmament and peaceful uses of nuclear energy.
But the international accord has been under strain for years with India, Pakistan, and North Korea developing nuclear weapons outside of the NPT -- and with Israel widely believed to be an undeclared nuclear state for the last 40 years.
"There are four clusters, in my view, that we need to work on 37 years after the regime entered into force to ensure that at all times nuclear energy is used exclusively for peaceful purposes and that we ensure that the gaps that might exist for misuse of that technology is plugged," el-Baradei has said.
"The four clusters, in my view, and where we need to work simultaneously [are] nuclear disarmament, verification, physical protection of nuclear materials, and multinational assurance of supply."
Progress Toward Disarmament
As recently as last month, El-Baradei said he was confident that the administrations of U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev were taking positive steps toward reducing their own nuclear-weapons stockpiles.
"On nuclear disarmament, I am quite hopeful that we are entering a new phase with the commitment of President Obama and President Medvedev to slash drastically the existing stockpile, with a commitment to move toward a comprehensive test-ban treaty, a treaty that prohibits the production of nuclear material for military purposes, for redeployment of existing nuclear weapons, and move away from the Cold War deployment status," he said.
"All these steps are absolutely urgently needed to create a new environment where we cease to continue to rely on nuclear weapons for our security and create an environment -- a security system -- that does not rely on nuclear weapons," he stressed. "That is not something that is going to happen overnight. But we need to start. And we need to start now."
The head of the U.S. delegation to the NPT Preparatory Committee, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller, told reporters at the start of the meetings that the Obama administration is strongly committed to the reduction of nuclear weapons stockpiles.
But Gottemoeller said that phasing out the production of nuclear weapons altogether cannot be done overnight, and needs to be done "in a very balanced way that ensure the effective, safe, secure, and reliable U.S. stockpile as long as nuclear weapons exist."
Political observers have criticized the previous U.S. administration of George W. Bush for causing NPT meetings to degenerate into a forum of accusations against Iran and North Korea. Some of those same critics now say the Obama administration appears to be genuinely working toward disarmament.