FPI Bulletin: The Iran Deal and the South African Standard

October 11, 2016

“An unprecedented inspections regime.” “The most comprehensive and intrusive inspection and verification regime ever negotiated.” “The most vigorous inspection and verification regime by far that has ever been negotiated.”

So said President Obama last year just a day after reaching the landmark nuclear agreement with Iran known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). But in an important new book, David Albright and Andrea Stricker of the Institute for Science and International Security offer a corrective to this narrative, tracing the history of South Africa’s nuclear weapons program and comparing Pretoria’s efforts to dismantle it with key provisions of the Iran deal. Its conclusion is bleak: The JCPOA, far from establishing a robust new paradigm of nuclear arms control, represented a significant diminution of earlier nonproliferation protocols.

Revisiting South Africa’s Nuclear Weapons Program provides a detailed account of the development of South Africa’s nuclear program, from its embryonic stages, in the 1950s, as a nuclear research and development center to its eventual production, beginning in the late 1970s, of six nuclear warheads. According to the authors, Pretoria, in the program’s early years, likely wished only to acquire the option to develop nuclear weapons but harbored no desire to operationalize this capability. Ultimately, however, the apartheid regime altered its strategy largely in response to rising fears of Soviet expansionism, hoping that the mere possession of the warheads — rather than their actual use — would deter aggression.

At the same time, Pretoria reasoned, if South Africa ever did find itself, as one strategy document put it, with “its back against the wall,” the country’s nuclear stockpile would incentivize the United States to intervene in order to prevent the breakout of nuclear war. Crucially, though, unlike Tehran, which has implicitly raised the specter of nuclear first-use by repeatedly threatening its adversaries with annihilation, Pretoria steadfastly opposed the deployment of nuclear weapons in an offensive capacity.

South Africa eventually opted, unilaterally and voluntarily, to dismantle its six warheads and associated nuclear weapons program when it realized, in the late 1980s, that the strategic costs of its arsenal far exceeded the benefits. The collapse of the Soviet Union and other external threats appeared to eliminate the need for a nuclear deterrent. Moreover, as Pretoria sought to end apartheid, it recognized that the nuclear weapons program undermined international confidence in its intentions.

In this context, South Africa understood that restoring the trust of the international community would require a robust inspections and verification regime aimed at eliminating any reasonable doubts concerning its nuclear ambitions. In so doing, Pretoria provided a model for other nations that wish to demonstrate their nuclear bona fides — and offered a stark contrast to the inadequate enforcement provisions of the July 2015 nuclear accord with Iran.

Allow “anywhere, anytime” inspections. Whereas South Africa, despite an initial delay, allowed International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors “anywhere, anytime” access to nuclear sites, the JCPOA institutes a cumbersome dispute resolution process that allows Iran to delay access for up to 24 days. Moreover, Tehran has refused to provide international inspectors with full access to such key military sites as Parchin, which the Iranian regime previously used to weaponize nuclear material.

Come clean on past nuclear weapons development. Whereas South Africa disclosed what Albright and Stricker describe as “a remarkable level of information” about its past nuclear activities, Iran stonewalled the IAEA’s investigation of its own efforts to weaponize nuclear material. Nevertheless, the 35-nation IAEA Board of Governors voted unanimously to remove the item from its agenda.

Treat ballistic missiles as part of nuclear infrastructure. Whereas South Africa adopted what Albright and Stricker call “a more holistic view of a nuclear weapon” that considers the warhead’s delivery vehicle an intrinsic part of it, the Iran deal created an artificial distinction between Tehran’s nuclear weapons program and its ballistic missile program. The JCPOA contains no prohibitions on Iran’s ballistic missiles development. Instead, the U.N. Security Council resolution tied to the agreement allows Iran to resume its ballistic missile activity in only eight years. Fifteen months later, Tehran has already repeatedly violated even this temporary restriction.

To be sure, observe Albright and Stricker, Pretoria’s efforts still fell short of the “gold standard” of IAEA verification. They note that Olli Heinonen, a former deputy director general of safeguards at the IAEA, regards South Africa as the “silver standard” due to its delay in providing full access and its initial attempts to mislead inspectors about its past nuclear weaponization activities. (Libya, in Heinonen’s view, meets the “gold standard” on account of its immediate provision of access and extensive documentation of its prior nuclear pursuit.) Moreover, as Albright and Stricker point out, Pretoria has insisted on retaining a large inventory of highly enriched uranium, raising U.S. concern that rogue actors may steal it for their own malign ends.

Still, more than a quarter century after South Africa began to dismantle its nuclear weapons program, the government has largely succeeded in assuring the international community that it no longer seeks the world’s most dangerous arms. Pretoria’s concomitant abolition of apartheid has contributed to this outcome, demonstrating that the government’s fundamental change in character reflected its emergence as a force for stability in the continent.

By contrast, the JCPOA, with its looming expiration in 10 years, deficient verification mechanisms, and corresponding Iranian refusal to adopt more moderate policies in its wake, has failed to placate regional fears regarding the nuclear threat from Tehran. In this context, Albright and Stricker’s book offers an instructive — and sobering — case study of what might have been.

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