WASHINGTON, Nov 7 (Reuters) When a large group of eminent U.S. foreign policy experts was asked this summer to name the country most likely to transfer nuclear technology to terrorists in the next three to five years, Pakistan was the top choice.
A whopping 74 per cent of the experts, from across the political spectrum, opted for Pakistan. Iran came a distant fourth. Asked which country they thought most likely to become al Qaeda's next stronghold, the experts also put Pakistan at the top of their list. Iran rated no mention.
Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is estimated at between 30 and 80 bombs and missiles. Osama bin Laden is thought to hide out in Pakistan's northwestern mountains, a base of operations for the Taliban and al Qaeda.
''A Perfect Nightmare,'' said the headline in Foreign Policy magazine which had teamed up with the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank, to survey 108 foreign policy professionals, including two former secretaries of state and a national security adviser, on threats to the United States.
That nightmare may become reality. Pakistan looks dangerously unstable after President Pervez Musharraf imposed emergency rule and jailed hundreds of judges, lawyers, human rights activists, and pro-democracy politicians. Protests continue despite the harsh measures.
What next? Washington has limited options, despite the billion in US aid Pakistan has received since it became an ally in the US ''war on terror'' after the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington.
While President George W. Bush said Musharraf should hold elections, he also praised him as ''a strong fighter against extremists and radicals,'' a remark that signalled aid would continue. So much for Washington's declared aim of spreading democracy around the world.
PERVERSE PRIORITIES What is happening in Pakistan not only shows the limits of U.S. influence, it also highlights foreign policy priorities whose logic at times seems perverse.
Take Pakistan's next-door neighbour, Iran. Much more than Pakistan, Iran has been an object of concern, the subject of heated public debate, and lately a major issue in the US presidential race.
That followed months of increasingly strident rhetoric from the Bush administration portraying Iran as a huge threat to the United States and to Europe that needed to be dealt with now.
Eerily reminiscent of the arguments that preceded the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the refrain was that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was a latter-day Hitler and must be stopped from acquiring weapons of mass destruction; i.e. nuclear bombs.
Ahmadinejad is all that remains of the Axis of Evil, Bush's catchy 2002 State of the Union label for Iraq, Iran and North Korea, the countries he then identified as sponsors of terrorism and seekers of weapons of mass destruction.
Saddam is dead. North Korea is off the list because it started dismantling its nuclear programme this week, supervised by a team of US experts, in exchange for economic aid.
No such deal is in sight with Iran, which insists its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes, scoffs at unilateral economic sanctions imposed on it by the United States, and shows no sign of being intimidated by Washington.
MILITARY STRIKE BACKED But the stop-Iran-now campaign has made an impact on Bush's home audience. Roughly half the Americans questioned in recent polls would support a military strike against Iran to prevent it from building a nuclear weapon.
The poll results are remarkable, given that the beating of war drums echoes the Bush administration's arguments in the run-up to the war in Iraq, where they proved false.
One might have expected reluctance to add a third war to the two the U.S. is already fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.
There are divided views over how far Iran has progressed in a nuclear programme which began under the late Shah of Iran, a close U.S. ally, with a research reactor provided by the US Over the years, Iran drew on equipment and expertise from Germany, China and Russia -- as well as the international black market in nuclear weapons material run by AQ Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb.
Khan confessed in 2004 and was promptly pardoned by Musharraf.
Mohammed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), says that while there are suspicions over Iran's nuclear activities, his agency had no evidence of a weapons programme.
According to ElBaradei, Iran is between three and eight years away from making a nuclear bomb.
''I want to get people away from the idea that Iran will be a threat from tomorrow and that we are faced right now with the issue of whether Iran should be bombed or allowed to have the bomb,'' he said in an interview published in October.
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