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NPT 101: What does it take for a country to give up its nuclear weapons?

South Africa dismantled its nuclear weapons after resisting fierce international sanctions for years. David Albright, who wrote extensively about that transition, says it may hold lessons – of patience and pressure – for dealing with Iran.

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The security case for South Africa's nukes

South Africa's tenacious grip on its nuclear weapons program – aided extensively by US ally Israel – was due mainly to an intense security environment, including years of constant military conflict. The apartheid regime justified its small, secret nuclear deterrent because the region had turned into a proxy cold war battlefield, with hot conflicts from Angola to Mozambique and "front-line states" that challenged the white-ruled government.

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But by the late 1980s the cold war was coming to an end. In 1989, the country elected F.W. de Klerk, who surprised many of his fellow Afrikaner nationalists by engineering the end of apartheid.

“You had to solve the security problems, and there had to be someone like F.W. de Klerk who transformed that society," says Albright. "It’s not trivial.”

'Let economics play its role'

In 1989, South Africa dismantled its six nuclear weapons, and a seventh that was under construction. It joined the NPT in 1991.

“What we found in South Africa is let economics play its role,” adds Albright. “Because once the security rationale is gone, then it’s only economics and these [uranium] enrichment plants rapidly decrease or disappear, or go extremely slowly.”

IN PICTURES: Nuclear Weapons


NPT 101:

Part 1: How relevant is the cold war treaty in an age of terrorism?

Part 2: Which countries have nuclear weapons?

Part 3: Why Iran sees nuclear 'hypocrisy'

Part 4: Clash between nuclear haves and have-nots

Part 5: Is Iran violating the nuclear treaty?

Part 6: Will the US accept a nuclear-capable Iran?