Yesterday’s cross-country plane ride gave me the chance to catch up with Jon Lee Anderson’s sobering dispatch from Iran, which pretty much cements the notion that the Islamic Republic will never give up its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Not that I didn’t already know that on some level—as Anderson so eloquently puts it, Iran seems hard-wired to strive for membership in the global elite:
In the Iranian imagination, a nuclear weapon is essential if the country is to assume its rightful place among the world’s leading nations. Iran once controlled a vast empire that included both Georgia and Tajikistan, and Iranians are proud nationalists, extremely sensitive about what they see as their country’s historic humiliations by Great Britain, the United States, and Russia. At the same time, they hold deep-seated feelings of cultural superiority over their neighbors. This has made for a prevailing world view that is at times both alarmingly naïve and toxically presumptuous.
In an attempt to counter the pessimism I felt after reading Anderson’s piece, I scurried back to the history books to learn all I could about South Africa’s decision to give up its nuclear-weapons program. South Africa did so at an incredibly late stage in the development process, perhaps even after conducting a failed atmospheric test that was detected by an American Vela satellite. (It’s also possible that an Israeli test in South African territory was to blame.)
Yet in reviewing the key lessons to be learned from South Africa’s dalliance with nukes, I came away even less convinced that Iran can ever be muscled or cajoled into abandoning its weapons program. The whole list of lessons is worth reading, just because they’re all so relevant to today’s situation. But this one really stuck out at me:
Although international political isolation may be an instrument to contain individual cases of nuclear proliferation, a point in such an isolation campaign may be reached where it actually becomes counter-productive and really pushes the would-be proliferator towards full proliferation. In the case of South Africa, this point was probably reached at the cut-off by the US of contractual supplies of fuel to both the SAFARI and Koeberg reactors together with the punitive financial measures applied by the US Administration at the time. The little leverage the US had over the South African nuclear programme, was lost.
As previously discussed on Microkhan, South Africa’s situation differed from Iran’s in several key aspects. Not only was South Africa not a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty during its development heyday, but it also had some curious notions about using nukes for peace—specifically for large-scale mining operations.
(Image via the Nuclear Weapons Archive)