The number of potential nuclear weapons states could more than double in the next few years unless major powers take radical steps towards disarmament, the head of the UN's nuclear watchdog was quoted saying on Friday.
Mohamed ElBaradei said the threat of proliferation was particularly great in the Middle East and the international regime designed to limit the spread of nuclear weapons was at risk of falling apart, the Guardian newspaper reported.
"Any regime ... has to have a sense of fairness and equity and it is not there," ElBaradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said in an interview with the paper.
He predicted the next wave of proliferation would involve "virtual nuclear states" which could produce plutonium or highly enriched uranium and would have the knowhow to make warheads, but would stop just short of assembling a weapon.
Such states would remain technically compliant with the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) while being within a couple of months of deploying and using a weapon, he said.
"This is the phenomenon we see now and what people worry about in Iran",
he was quoted as saying. "And this phenomenon goes much beyond Iran. Pretty soon ... you will have nine weapons states and probably another 10 or 20 virtual weapons states."
The Middle East is a "ticking bomb" because people feel totally repressed by their own governments and unjustly treated by the outside world, said ElBaradei, who is due to retire in November after more than 11 years leading the IAEA.
It would be no surprise to see "more and more extremist groups trying to get their hands on nuclear weapons or nuclear materials," he said.
The acquisition of nuclear weapons by a terrorist group is the greatest threat facing the world, ElBaradei said, noting the rise of the Taliban in Pakistan: "We are worried because there is a war in a country with nuclear weapons."