Two rogue states and their nuclear dreams

2012-06-25 00:00

SOME believe there can be a diplomatic solution, others that military confrontation is inevitable; but few would disagree that the broader implications of Iran’s nuclear programme are a crucial factor in ongoing Middle East tension.

Last week, a meeting in Moscow continued the search for a negotiated outcome with continued ambiguity about Teheran’s intentions. The International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) has found traces of 20% enriched uranium at an underground plant near Qom in northern Iran that has been equipped with 3 000 centrifuges. Iran has been enriching uranium for nearly two decades and the IAEA believes that detonation and weaponisation experiments are well advanced.

Under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NNPT), and subject to inspection, all nations have the right to enrich uranium for peaceful use, but Iran is clearly edging towards military capability. Its leaders publicly denounce nuclear weapons, but bluff is an intrinsic part of diplomacy. Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant sources its fuel from Russia, calling into question the need for an expanding enrichment programme. However, its shaky economy and declining, sanctions-afflicted oil output are escalating the real cost of military nuclear capability and encouraged diplomatic efforts. One suggestion is that a limited programme under tight international scrutiny is a possibility.



The stakes are high and it is worth looking at the history of a covert military nuclear programme — South Africa’s — for parallels and lessons. It is largely remembered today for its voluntary dismantling after 1989 on grounds of cost, changing international and regional relations and the National Party government’s anxiety about the possibility of six (and a half) nuclear bombs in ANC hands.

A double flash near Marion Island in the south Indian Ocean picked up by the Vela satellite on September 22, 1979, was sufficient to indicate that South Africa had successfully tested a nuclear weapon, probably a low-yield device exploded at sea level with Israeli and Taiwanese assistance. Various attempts were made to deny this, citing satellite malfunction. But sonar pulses, elevated levels of iodine 131 in New Zealand sheep and weather conditions added to the evidence. So did Soviet agent Dieter Gerhardt, who confirmed that Israeli ships were at Simon’s Town naval base in mid-September. South African naval vessels were known to have been in the right area for a test.

It is probable that the idea of a South African nuclear weapon dated from the fifties and that early research was concealed as mine or oil storage blasting. By 1955, 16 mines were profitably producing uranium, initially for export to the West. South Africa had refused to sign the NNPT in 1970, but the spur to produce a bomb was thought to be a sense of betrayal by the Americans after the invasion of Angola in 1975 (Operation Savannah). The government also desired to demonstrate the nation’s technological capability and independence. There had been unexplained tremors in the Northern Cape in the mid-seventies and in 1977, the Russians spotted the Vastrap underground test site (supposedly a munitions dump) in the Kalahari. It was closed down under pressure. But the uranium-enrichment Y-plant at Valindaba was in full operation that same year.


By 1983, South Africa had a bomb and the ability to deliver it, theoretically well outside the southern African region. Sophisticated work on implosion weapons took place at Advena within a well-developed national research network that knitted together industry, academia and the military. Apart from prestige and a possible diplomatic tool, it was always hard to work out why South Africa wanted the bomb. The threat of strategic weapons was presumably a useful bluff that suited the laager mentality of South Africa: aggressive, isolated nationalism and the securocrat culture of the garrison state of the eighties. Work, probably assisted by Israel and illegally acquired technology from the United States, was well advanced on a multistage launch vehicle that could carry either a warhead or satellite. But more to the point, nuclear shells fired from G5 or G6 artillery certainly had a tactical rationale.

Disposal of South Africa’s capability was clouded in secrecy and very swift, citing the threat of proliferation, and proving the point that P.W. Botha had been the programme’s patron saint. The bombs were dismantled in July 1990, the weapons’ grade material diluted, Advena decontaminated, Vastrap sealed and 12 000 documents supposedly shredded before a single IAEA inspector arrived. Renfrew Christie, dean of research at the University of the Western Cape, comments that “disassembly and the fissile arithmetic were as transparent as mud”. There was no international supervision, but in Christie’s view the independent auditor was “highly competent and strong, and there was complete political agreement” on finalising the process. Some documents did end up in private hands: Wouter Basson’s, for instance. The IAEA was highly unimpressed by this. However, by reconstructing Y-plant’s operations it accepted the accuracy (within one significant quantity or 25 kilogrammes) of South Africa’s submission that 450 kilogrammes of decommissioned enriched uranium represented six and a half bombs. Yet Y-plant produced 1 500 kilogrammes in total and it is not known how much was used by the Safari-1 research reactor from 1965 onwards. Rumours persisted that delivery capability might not have been entirely destroyed in spite of American pressure, and that it would have been fairly easy to conceal small amounts of enriched uranium. Christie is emphatic that “there is not the slightest chance that South Africa is now a nuclear weapons power”, although along with 60 other states it could produce them. However, he adds, the considerable accumulated scientific and technological expertise was “pensioned off with good pensions”.


South Africa provides a classic example of a covert military programme developed by a rogue state. Such programmes are extremely hard to monitor. F.W. de Klerk’s parliamentary admission in March 1993 of the full extent of South Africa’s nuclear military capability was no surprise, but its sophistication was. And its destruction was just as secret and essentially unilateral: full IAEA access was granted only from this point onwards. The exact nature of what was developed and what was dismantled, particularly in the realm of tactical weapons, remains obscure. As two American commentators, Helen Purkitt and Stephen Burgess, have argued: “South Africa was no paragon of disarmament”. But it did demonstrate that given the right geopolitical conditions and political will, effective disarmament is feasible.


There have, nevertheless, been embarrassments. In 2007, the trial took place of Daniel Geiges and Gerhard Wisser on charges of smuggling nuclear technology after interception of a shipment to Libya in 2003 that was linked to Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan network, a dangerously unregulated component of global nuclear weapons development. Both Geiges and Wisser had worked on the South African bomb and the trial, a matter of considerable public interest, was held in camera ostensibly to keep information secret from rogue states. Questions continue to be asked whether South Africa could be a source for a primitive device, a dirty bomb, in the hands of Al-Qaeda. And is there nuclear material in the hands of right wingers?

Iran today and South Africa in the eighties are similar in a number of ways: isolated, highly militarised, censored, authoritarian societies subject to international sanctions with hostile neighbours. However, there the similarities seem to end. The contemporary geopolitics of the Middle East do not carry the optimism of southern Africa in the early nineties, nor is Iran on the verge of democratic reform. The lesson of the covert South African nuclear programme is that all peaceful uses of nuclear technology have military potential, uranium enrichment is relatively easy, and the dividing line between defence and offence is thin indeed. Missiles have multiple, interchangeable uses and small amounts of enriched uranium can do a great deal of mischief.

Non-proliferation is indeed an elusive objective and probably unattainable: the South African experience is unusual, although inspiring. However, economic hardship, international pressure, isolation and sanctions, together with the domestic bonus of a peace dividend, could yet be a persuasive combination even in the case of Iran. But realism suggests that it will not be persuaded to relinquish its nuclear military programme until there is regional stability guaranteed by a peace settlement in Palestine.

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