Secretary of State Colin Powell recently accused Iran of working on technology that would allow its ballistic missiles to carry nuclear warheads, a charge Tehran has denied. Experts in arms control and proliferation name Iran and North Korea as two countries that can produce missiles and sell the technology, therefore threatening their neighbors and other nations around the world. Correspondent Meredith Buel has more in this background report from Washington.
The State Department says about a dozen countries are involved in ballistic missile production and may be involved in proliferation of actual weapons or the technology needed to build them.
Vann Van Diepen is the director of the Department's Office of Chemical, Biological and Missile Nonproliferation.
He names two nations that are of particular concern.
"Basically for us the two key concerns are Iran and North Korea. Right now both of those countries already possess missile capabilities that can target U.S. forces and allies in their immediate regions. Both of those countries are working on substantially longer-range systems that over time would be able to target the United States homeland directly. Both of those countries, although at the moment much more so North Korea, export missile technology to assist others to pose equivalent kinds of threats in their regions."
Aaron Karp is a senior professor of International Studies at Old Dominion University and serves as a consultant on ballistic missiles to the United Nations Secretary General.
Mr. Karp says there has been a lack of progress on deterring ballistic missile proliferation involving Iran and North Korea because the United States has few mutual interests with either country.
"Arms control depends on mutuality and we have to find techniques that enable the countries involved to deal with each other directly. We do not have that right now. The United States does not have a diplomatic relationship with Iran worth talking about. We have no diplomatic relationship with North Korea. Iran we have no idea how to deal with. In that sense arms control does miss the good old days of the Cold War when the sense of mutual interests was very clear."
Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, argues that it is difficult to engage in discussion with North Korea about its ballistic missile program while the primary concern is the country's development of nuclear weapons.
"The missile issue has never been placed in the past three or four years higher on the agenda because we still have the nuclear issue. So I think it is fair to say that so long as the nuclear issue remains outstanding it is going to be difficult for the United States and the other parties engaged in these discussions with North Korea to get to the missile issue, which remains an important, outstanding and troublesome one."
Vann Van Diepen of the U.S. State Department says there are a variety of ways to at least slow down the development of ballistic missile systems.
He asserts that the United States has done a good job limiting the number of countries involved in missile proliferation.
"We have gotten a number of countries out of the missile business. Argentina is no longer in the missile business, a number of countries in Eastern Europe and South Africa, so there has been tangible progress in reducing the number of countries with missile capabilities. Finally, for the rest of the countries, what we do is impede their programs. We make those programs take longer, cost more, be less effective, less reliable than they would be otherwise."
Mr. Van Diepen says the United States, in his words, is holding down the lid on the ballistic missile threat to, in part, buy time for opportunities to convince countries to end their programs.
He cites Libya, which has dismantled its missile and nuclear development programs, as the most recent example of how this strategy can work.