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What South Africa Teaches Us About Suspect Nuclear Programs

Just as two decades ago in the run-up to the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea, enthusiasm for a nuclear deal has trumped good sense and careful consideration about the implications of some of the concessions the White House was willing to make. Back in 1994, President Bill Clinton and his aides gave the South Korean president what might today be called “the Netanyahu treatment,” demonizing the leader of a democratic and pro-American country for having the temerity of raising concerns regarding how a rushed and ill-conceived diplomatic bargain cold undercut his own country’s security. At the same time, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)—which had just been burned when it emerged that Iraq had had a covert nuclear program despite 11 IAEA clean bills of health—began raising concerns that concessions which the Clinton administration negotiators had made with Pyongyang would make it impossible for the IAEA to do its job. Hindsight shows both the Seoul and the IAEA were right. The irony today is, of course, that Kerry has appointed to be his Iran negotiators some of the same individuals who brought us the Agreed Framework and, by extension, a North Korean nuclear arsenal.

It is useful, however, to consider successful examples in which countries have abandoned their military nuclear programs. Libya is one example, of course. The late Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi agreed to abandon his nuclear program in 2003 against the backdrop first of the invasion of Iraq, and then Saddam’s capture. But, even then, American and international experts rushed around the clock to remove nuclear equipment and records in case the famously mercurial Qaddafi changed his mind. Obama has effectively voided six United Nations Security Council resolutions demanding a complete cessation of Iranian enrichment, and he has acceded to Iranian demands that enrichment occur inside Iran, rather than abroad, with a guaranteed supply of nuclear fuel for Iran’s plants.

South Africa is another example. After years of suspicion with regard to its nuclear intentions and, indeed, a weapons program, in 1991 South Africa agreed to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The IAEA moved in to assess South Africa’s compliance. In order to verify the completeness of South Africa’s declaration of inventory of nuclear material and facilities, the IAEA required more than two decades of past records into South Africa’s nuclear program. Ultimately, the organization was able to then trace and account for all nuclear material and verify that South Africa was in compliance.

Alas, Obama and Kerry have in effect acceded to Iran’s demand that transparency and accountability start only when a framework agreement is signed, and that there will be no requirement that Iran come clean about its past. In reality, however, the IAEA will need full and complete records going back to the mid-1980s when the Islamic Republic restarted its nuclear program. The IAEA is right to complain that it is being put in an impossible position because Kerry’s team is prioritizing imagery over substance. Rather than uphold South Africa’s nuclear negotiations as a model, Kerry is effectively allowing Iran to replicate the North Korea model, a model that Iranian nuclear negotiators have embraced. Alas, North Korea has already shown the world where that leads.



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