Only one nation has ever given up a nuclear arsenal they built themselves: South Africa.
The example set by the white-ruled apartheid regime in South Africa is a standard for arms control experts now reviewing the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in New York. In the 1970s and 80s, South Africa secretly developed six warheads in the teeth of fierce international opposition, including sanctions and a complete military embargo. It was a nuclear-armed state for a decade.
“South Africa was extremely determined [to have nuclear weapons], and it took a lot to turn them around,” says David Albright, head of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington. “They held on very deeply, and just felt they would withstand the sanctions."
There are parallels today to Iran, says Albright, which shares a similar attachment to its peaceful nuclear energy program. The UN Security Council has ordered Iran to suspend uranium enrichment until questions are resolved about possible weapons work. Iran has instead boosted enrichment plans.
While Iran's security needs and demands diverge significantly from South Africa's – and Tehran's energy program is not Pretoria's full-fledged weapon's program – Albright says pressure (even without apparent short-term results) and patience could eventually changing thinking in Iran.
South Africa also had going for it the end of the cold war and the end of apartheid, two critical changes to its threat perceptions; while Iran's security environment – with nuclear rival Israel, and tens of thousands of US troops on its borders – is not likely to change soon.
Ironically, in the international struggle to make South Africa give up its nuclear weapons, “the US was a lot like Russia and China are for Iran [today]," recalls Albright, who wrote frequently about the case in the 1990s for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. "They didn’t want to impose UN Security Council sanctions, and they wanted to supply nuclear things to South Africa’s civilian nuclear program in the 1980s.
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.
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.”