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Iran’s Nuclear Program – Lessons From the South African Model

The Iranian Threat

Over the past several years the international community has been faced with the issue of Iran’s development of nuclear capabilities. Many see Iranian nuclear weapons as a threat to the world’s peace and security, and as an undermining factor to the fragile strategic balance in the Middle East.

Despite Iran’s stated purpose for its nuclear program – civilian power generation – its persistent attempts to acquire nuclear weapons and to develop the capability to launch long range ballistic missiles continually belie its official stand. Moreover, coupled with its extreme religious ideology and use of violence, its leaders’ public declarations about conducting a holy war (a Jihad) against the United States – the big Satan, and Israel – the small Satan, and its continuing support of terrorist organizations in the Iraqi, Lebanese and Palestinian theatres, its nuclear overtures are increasingly the main factors in the tension between Iran and the international community.

Iran’s nuclear program began in 1970 when it ratified the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Since that time its nuclear facilities have supposedly been under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). There is evidence, however (some from IAEA’s own reports), that despite the IAEA’s alleged scrutiny Iran has repeatedly tried to develop capabilities to enrich uranium and to separate plutonium, essential for building nuclear devices. Additional reports recently published by the IAEA revealed that Iran is not willing to fulfill the NPT’s demands, and that it has tried to obtain centrifuges that carry out the enrichment process, allegations that United States and Israeli intelligence agencies have been making for several years. In the past ten years Iran has done everything within its power to deceive the international community and to conceal its build up of nuclear weapons to gain more time to achieve operational capabilities. Nevertheless, it is known that Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is comprised of scores of secret sites spread throughout a vast territory, which are not under any international supervision, and some of which were built within military installations deep underground to protect them from the possibility of aerial attack.

Thus Iran’s attempts to build nuclear bombs are tangible, and without international intervention, it seems that nothing will stop it from realizing its ambition. Furthermore, Iran’s support of terrorist organizations operating in different areas of the Middle East, Africa and Asia increases the fear that once Iran acquires nuclear weapons, they could be transferred to these organizations. Therefore, it is in the international community’s best interest to do whatever it can to prevent a country with radical ideology and aspirations from putting its hands on the most destructive weapon ever built by man. At the moment there is consensus among the main actors in the international system – the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations – regarding the level of threat posed by Iran, were it to acquire nuclear weapons. It seems that the international community is reluctant, however, to join forces and to act firmly against Iran’s nuclear program.

During the last meeting held in Texas between US President George W. Bush and the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon in April 2005, the latter asked President Bush to consider turning to the UN Security Council to increase the international pressure on Iran, through the imposition of comprehensive sanctions against it. At the meeting, Prime Minister Sharon presented Israeli intelligence reports indicating that Iran is only a few months away from the “point of no return” in its development of military nuclear capabilities, and argued that based on this information it was crucial to act quickly and decisively to thwart the Iranian nuclear weapons program. President Bush rejected the Israeli assessments and said that according to United States intelligence evaluations, Iran is still years away from obtaining nuclear capability and that the United States has no intention to attack Iran as long as diplomatic efforts are still ongoing. Russian President, Vladimir Putin has similarly acknowledged the scope of the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program, noting that it could touch on Russia’s security interests. Nonetheless, in a statement he made during his visit to Israel at the end of April 2005, President Putin confirmed that the nuclear cooperation between Iran and Russia would continue.

It is apparent therefore, that the actions being taken against Iran will not deviate from diplomatic boundaries and international sanctions. This kind of policy, combining international isolation, Security Council resolutions and economic and military sanctions can, at best, slow down Iran’s nuclear program, but at worst, it can also achieve the exact opposite. It can push Iran further to enhance its efforts to develop a nuclear arsenal.

The South African Model

A policy comprised of boycotts and international expulsion together with comprehensive sanctions, had already been attempted in the past, in a different context – against the Republic of South Africa and its apartheid regime – and one of its severe consequences was to encourage South Africa to develop nuclear bombs.

The international campaign against the apartheid regime began when the world’s opposition to the racist policy against the black majority reached its peak at the beginning of the 1970’s. The international concerns intensified after the riots in Soweto district in June 1976, when thousands of black students staged a demonstration against the racist policy of the apartheid regime, which resulted in the death of 23 blacks by the police forces. The campaign against South Africa consisted of several elements. In a series of UN Security Council resolutions, diplomatic isolation was imposed on South Africa. In addition, the Organization of African Unity and other international organizations decided to suspend South Africa’s membership.

For the diplomatic isolation to be effective, the UN also imposed economic and cultural sanctions on South Africa, prohibiting any type of commercial, cultural, sports and academic relations. Furthermore, an embargo on the supply of oil and petroleum products and a mandatory embargo on the provision of arms, technological knowledge and spare parts were also imposed.

The final step, which ultimately completed the international expulsion of South Africa and marked its denunciation from the international community, was nuclear isolation. Until the mid 1970’s, South Africa’s nuclear program, which was facilitated by American technology and fuel to run the nuclear reactors, was designated for civilian purposes only. When the United States recognized apartheid as a threat to the region’s stability, it decided to terminate its nuclear cooperation with South Africa. South Africa’s refusal to sign the NPT, which it viewed as a form of political blackmail, led to international consensus that South Africa’s nuclear program needed to be curbed at any cost, as stipulated by the NPT, and its membership in the IAEA was suspended.

These international actions, although not aimed directly against South Africa’s nuclear program, but rather, derived from the desire to put an end to the racist regime, led South African leaders to perceive that “the noose was tightening around their necks.” This perception by South Africa’s leaders, namely, of a total onslaught by the international community, albeit through non-violent means, brought on a sense of fear for South Africa’s national security. It was that perception, and, paradoxically, the international expulsion, boycotts, mandatory UN sanctions and regional and intra-state security deterioration, which consequently accelerated South Africa’s nuclear program and led to its development of nuclear devices.

In light of South Africa’s ostracization and its international and regional status, its leaders increasingly grew to espouse a policy of self-determination, based on a perception that the nation could only trust itself and that South Africa’s national security and sovereignty must not be dependent on other countries. Hence, the apartheid regime viewed the nuclear program as the basis for guaranteeing South Africa’s security and safeguarding the apartheid regime. Therefore, the South African government ordered the development of six nuclear bombs as part of a nuclear deterrence policy. The main goal of this policy was to prevent intervention of outside factors (states or international organizations) in South Africa’s internal affairs. The government’s position was that nuclear weapons would be used only in cases of clear and present danger to South Africa’s national security or its regime, and only when no other option existed.

From this moment on, substantial percentage of South Africa’s resources was invested in accelerating its development of nuclear weapons. A crucial component in its nuclear program was the ability to form a web of surreptitious ties with other countries that were willing and able to supply South Africa with essential products and help augment its nuclear program and military power. Secret nuclear cooperation was established with countries willing to risk breaching the mandatory international sanctions. With the help of disobedient states, such as Israel, South Africa began nuclear testing by the beginning of the 1980’s and in 1982 it completed its first nuclear bomb. This moment was of utmost importance for South Africa – it perceived its deployment of a nuclear device as guaranteeing its sovereignty and the survival of the apartheid regime, and it instilled the notion that henceforth, the probability of an outside threat to the regime’s survival was extremely low.

Ten years later, the Republic of South Africa made history in the nuclear era when its government voluntarily decided to stop the production of nuclear bombs and dismantle the country’s nuclear arsenal. It is essential to understand, however, that the reason for the dismantling of the nuclear bombs was fundamentally internal, and not directly due to its international isolation. Specifically, the decision to dismantle came in anticipation of the expected changes in government and the transfer of power to Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress; the concern that black leaders would possess nuclear bombs; the impending democratic reforms, and the desire to regain South Africa’s place in the international community. South Africa’s president at the time, F. W. De Klerk recognized that his country’s nuclear capability and attendant deterrence policy appeared needless and possibly posed an obstacle to the country’s return to the international arena. Nuclear disarmament symbolized South Africa’s shift from a nuclear power to a state committed to international conventions, and one that undertakes decisive efforts to curb the development and distribution of weapons of mass destruction, thus gaining a place of honor among the nations of the world.

Iran’s Nuclear Program vs. South Africa’s Nuclear Program

When comparing Iran’s and South Africa’s nuclear programs, it is possible to identify a number of common denominators that could assist in understanding why Iran is capable of developing nuclear weapons and what might motivate it to do so. First, it is clear that both countries feared international intervention in their internal affairs. Furthermore, diplomatic isolation and economic and military sanctions could undoubtedly be considered boosting factors for the relevance of their nuclear programs. In addition, in both countries the human resources involved in the different aspects of developing nuclear weapons were extremely skilled and highly trained. A large portion of the scientists, engineers and technicians working in both countries’ nuclear programs gained their professional education in western countries or in countries with advanced nuclear capabilities – in South Africa’s case it was the United States, United Kingdom and Israel, and in Iran’s case it was Russia, China, Pakistan, North Korea, to a degree some of the EU countries and to a lesser degree even the United States. Both South Africa and Iran maintained a modern military industry employing sophisticated technologies in the developing and manufacturing stages. Despite their skilled manpower and advanced technologies, both countries abstained from setting ambitious goals for their nuclear industry and limited themselves to reachable objectives. This is the reason for the simple design and specifications of South Africa’s and Iran’s nuclear devices and for the relatively low development costs. Finally, despite the enormous efforts made by the international community to supervise South Africa’s and Iran’s nuclear facilities, both countries successfully deceived western intelligence agencies and established a clandestine network that provided the necessary equipment and knowledge to develop nuclear capability.

When investigating Iran’s recent nuclear program, it is impossible not to notice its resemblance to the South African model. It is incumbent, therefore, on the international community to learn the lessons derived from the South African model, and to do whatever is necessary to prevent Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. Clinging to the prevailing international policy, led by the United States and the EU, it is foreseeable that the world will eventually find itself dealing with Iran in an entirely different field with a completely different set of rules, including, most significantly, Iran’s possession of nuclear capability.

Although there is considerable resemblance between Iran’s and South Africa’s nuclear programs, one should bear in mind a crucial distinction. It is important to mention that South Africa’s nuclear program was conducted during, and to some extent because of, the Cold War and the fear of Soviet expansion into sub-equatorial Africa. This fear became even more germane after communist movements backed by the Soviet Union took control of Angola and Mozambique and over sixty five thousand Cuban and East German troops entered Angola. Because of the regional volatility, the two super-powers chose not to be directly involved in the region, but to use proxies to represent their interests instead, fearing that direct intervention might escalate the conflict into a global one. South Africa took advantage of the Super-powers’ and the rest of the world’s passiveness, and continued to develop its nuclear weapons. Nowadays, when the only Super-power left in the international system has declared a War on Terror and designated Iran as part of the Axis of Evil, there is a higher probability that the international community would be willing to take a less passive approach against Iran and would not tolerate its dilatory and concealment tactics.

Another aspect that should be considered by an international community intent on thwarting Iran’s nuclear program is the enormous power and public support held by the radical and conservative groups headed by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Hoseini Khamenei, as was recently demonstrated when his protégé, the hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected as the new President of Iran. Every attempt made by the former President Ali Mohammad Khatami to resuscitate Iran’s failing economy, to instigate liberal reforms and to improve Iran’s relations with the Arab and western worlds, has encountered massive resistance, popular street demonstrations and use of force by the Iranian “Hard-Liners.”. Iran’s nuclear program is perceived by many, both in the leadership and in the public, as the ultimate safeguard to the regime’s sovereignty. Therefore, to maintain the government’s tenuous stability, former President Khatami has been extremely cautious with regard to Iran’s nuclear program, avoiding confrontations when possible with the radicals who are pressuring for the acquisition of nuclear capability. One of the most vocal and enthusiastic advocates of Iran’s nuclear program is Dr. Hassan Rowhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, who has a strong relationship with Khamenei. Dr. Rowhani, who also served as the chief nuclear negotiator, has repeatedly stated that Iran’s nuclear program is fundamental to the national interest, and that any military attack aimed at Iran’s nuclear facilities would motivate it to accelerate its nuclear program. It seems very unlikely that internal factors would convince Iranian leaders to relinquish their nuclear aspirations, as was the case in the South African model. Iran has gone too far and invested too much in its nuclear program to cave in now. The world should understand this and adopt a more aggressive approach.

What is the international community doing to stop Iran’s Nuclear Program?

Several countries are trying to impose international pressure on Iran, in the hope of prompting a discussion of Iran’s nuclear program at the UN Security Council. There is a danger, however, that this strategy may backfire. First, this pressure could prove inefficient when bringing this issue to the Security Council, as it might result in Russia or China using their right to veto any resolution against Iran. At the same time, the pressure could drive Iran to accelerate further its nuclear program because it would perceive such pressure as tightening the noose around its neck. One of the lessons that should be learned from the international sanctions imposed on South Africa is that in that situation countries were willing to violate the sanctions and to ignore the Security Council’s resolutions, to preserve their commercial and military relations with South Africa. Consequently, it took almost ten years for the sanctions imposed on South Africa to have the desired impact of forcing a change in that government’s racist policy. Even the international sanctions inflicted upon Iraq by the Security Council in 1990 proved toothless, since only few countries actually abided by them. The time factor is critical for the international community’s struggle against Iran, since Iran’s rapid development of its nuclear capabilities does not accord the international community the privilege to wait ten years – nor five years – for the effect of the sanctions, if imposed, to achieve the desired outcome.

Already today, Iran faces some limitations cast on it by the UN, the IAEA and others. The split within the international community, however, regarding the policy that should be adopted to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons enables Iran to continue its nuclear aspirations and even to garner the support of Russia, North Korea, Pakistan, China, Germany and other countries. The declared policy of the “EU Three” – Germany, France and the UK – known also as the “Critical Dialogue”, aims to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear program by deepening further the ties of cooperation with western countries and by offering incentives to Iran in various fields, in the hope that strengthened diplomatic and economic ties will convince Iran to give up its nuclear program. The United States’ policy led by President Bush, on the other hand, is sterner and tends to favour UN sanctions as a first but necessary step, although the US constantly states that it will not attack Iran, but rather that it will allow the “EU Three” to utilize existing diplomatic channels to their fullest.

The United States’ military campaigns against two of Iran’s neighboring countries, Afghanistan and Iraq, and the declaration made by President Bush that Iran is considered one of the Axis of Evil countries, have undoubtedly resulted in Iran’s decision not to yield to the international pressure and in the strengthening of the deterrence factions within its leadership. For example, the recent arms deal signed between United States and Israel to supply one hundred GBU-28 “Bunker Blaster” bombs to Israel received massive media coverage in Iran and increased speculation regarding a military attack by Israel. Moreover, it is likely that Iran, having observed the United States’ and the international community’s lack of readiness and unwillingness to act aggressively against North Korea, which recently publicized its nuclear weapon capabilities, feels emboldened to continue with its weapons drive. On the other hand, United States leaders were more than ready to invade Iraq and to overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein, knowing that Iraq did not have ready-to-use nuclear weapons. Therefore, in the eyes of the Iranian leaders, nuclear capability is an imperative element necessary to deter the international community, led by the United States, from taking military actions against Iran.

What Should be Done?

If the world does not want to find itself dealing with an Iran possessing nuclear weapons, as was the case with South Africa, lessons from the South African model must be learned, particularly in light of the risk that current international efforts aimed to prevent Iran from attaining nuclear capability may prove counterproductive.

Boycotts, isolation and sanctions are important steps but would not suffice to stop Iran’s nuclear program. On one hand, the international community in general, and the EU in particular, must understand that only forceful policy combined with aggressive action could prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear capability. The Iranian regime on the other hand, ought to understand that the days when countries were willing to turn a blind eye towards Iran’s continuing support of terrorist organizations, its involvement in Lebanon’s internal affairs, its funding of Hizballah, and its public threats against the United States and Israel, are over. The world must convey an austere and decisive message aimed to prevent Iran from obtaining the capability to attack severely another country, as it has repeatedly threatened to do on previous occasions.

Every action that would be concluded in the diplomatic channels and the economic and military sanctions might be ineffective and even dangerous. Until the sanctions and the deliberations would be finalized, Iran would probably have at least one nuclear bomb ready for deployment, making it far more dangerous for the international community to act with force against Iran. The international community must be willing to take a risk and to use aerial forces launching cruise missile and “smart bombs” against strategic targets in Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Iran’s leaders must be convinced that the threat they face now is different from any other threat that they have ever previously confronted. They must be made fully aware of the consequences of their nuclear ambitions and forced to bear in mind that the international community would do whatever is in its power to foil Iran’s nuclear program.

The international community should present Iran with a plan composed of series of incremental steps and a fixed timetable, premised on the understanding that Iran must give up its nuclear program, or face an aggressive international reaction. These incremental steps would allow the international community to gain the necessary international legitimacy essential for any military action against Iran, should it not comply with the world’s demands. The first step should be taken by the IAEA’s Board of Governors in their next meeting in September 2005. If Iran would not agree to give free access to IAEA’s inspectors, to show more transparency and to reveal all its nuclear facilities, and if the negotiations between the “EU Three” and Iran would fail, the Board of Governors must agree to take this matter immediately to the UN Security Council. The second step should include a Security Council resolution imposing limited sanctions on Iran and a defined time schedule to “correct” the situation in a face-saving manner. A fixed timetable is crucial at this point, because Iran had showed in the past its ability to deceive the international community by moving some of its nuclear installations to secret places. The nature of these sanctions would focus on technological, military and commercial cooperation as well as on diplomatic relations, and in ninety days the Security Council would reconvene to review the situation. If Iran would continue to develop nuclear weapons and would not obey the Security Council’s resolution, total isolation should be forced on Iran and it would be defined as a pariah state. The United States and EU would supervise the implementation of this isolation, and if there would be evidence that Iran’s nuclear program didn’t come to a full stop, the international community, led by the United States, would have the permission to use any means necessary to terminate the dispute over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, including massive missile strike and aerial bombardment.

Nowadays, the general opinion among the radical and conservative circles in Iran is that nuclear weapons are the sole element that can guarantee Iran’s survival and the continuation of its Islamic regime. The international steps outlined above should convey a clear message to the Iranian government that it would be wise to understand that the likely consequence that it faces if it continues with its nuclear ambitions is the risk of an attack against those nuclear installations and probably the collapse of the Islamic regime. To that end, the international community must present to Iran’s leaders clearly and unequivocally the economic and diplomatic benefits that Iran would gain from relinquishing its nuclear program, including international assistance, re-establishment of commercial relations with the West and the opening of Iran’s markets to foreign investments. Taking a page from the South African model, only if the light at the end of the tunnel is shown to Iran, can rationality overcome radicalism and the Iranian government may begin to accord greater value to the other option, namely, economic vitality at the cost of renouncing its nuclear program. Once Iran’s leaders would be certain that the international community is determined to act and to deploy all the necessary means against it, they would also realize that the development of nuclear weapons would also risk the end of the Islamic regime.