Yesterday the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) held a hearing on nuclear diplomacy with Iran. Speakers made several references to South Africa’s nuclear past and what it means for the six powers trying to negotiate a verification agreement with the Islamic Republic.

The IAEA and South Africa twenty years ago successfully resolved questions about South Africa’s former nuclear weapons activities. That record is resonating now among critics of the Iran/P5+1 process because Iran is currently challenging the IAEA’s authority to do the kind of verification the powers want to see included in a comprehensive agreement. But Iran won’t and can’t follow South Africa’s example without a fundamental rebooting of its relationship with the IAEA.

South Africa swung toward exceptional cooperation with the IAEA at a time when its strategic threat perception was changing and it was facing near-certain regime change. I suspect at least some of the critics who see South Africa as a model for Iran understand that and will draw their own conclusions. Neocons among them should be aware that the pressure which drove white supremacists to give up nuclear weapons was generated inside the country, not outside.

South Africa: The Record

Beginning in the 1970s, South Africa’s Apartheid regime, facing growing international isolation and conflict on its periphery, set up a secret program to develop and make nuclear weapons. By 1989 it produced six of these. In November 1989 it ordered the program terminated and by July 1991 South Africa dismantled its nuclear weapons. That same month it joined the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and negotiated a comprehensive safeguards agreement (CSA) which entered into force two months later. Only then did the IAEA obtain access to what was left of that program including, most importantly, the highly-enriched uranium used in the weapons. In less than two years, the IAEA had more or less accounted for all of South Africa’s declared nuclear materials. During this process involving about 150 inspections, the South African government never acknowledged or otherwise made known that it had secretly made nuclear weapons; the IAEA concerned itself with verifying the correctness and completeness of South Africa’s nuclear material inventory. The IAEA did not focus upon allegations of the kind of nuclear weapons activities which today suggest to the IAEA  ”possible military dimensions” (PMD) in Iran’s nuclear program.

In March 1993, South Africa declared that it had in the past made nuclear weapons. The IAEA then, also on the basis of extensive cooperation from South Africa, verified that all the nuclear material in the weapons program was accounted for and under safeguards, and that the nuclear weapons program was terminated.

The IAEA is confident that essential nuclear material-related activities in the nuclear weapons program are accounted for. It investigated PMD-type activities to the extent they were deemed critical to assure that at some future time South Africa would not re-constitute this program. It closed the books on this exercise in 2010.

No Change? No Cooperation

Some advocates of a robust verification arrangement for Iran under a comprehensive nuclear agreement now argue that South Africa’s extensive cooperation should be the standard for how Iran proceeds with the IAEA.

What was said on July 29 about South Africa by SFRC Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and by ex-IAEA safeguards director Olli Heinonen echoed a cyberspace exchange I had a few days before, in which Senator Menendez and also Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) were linked in. On Twitter last week, Robert Zarate, a former Congressional staffer now here, put it this way to me: “S Africa decided 2 ‘come clean’ on nuke prog’s military dimensions. It’s the baseline 4 Iran.” Senator Kirk described what South Africa permitted the IAEA to do as “anywhere, anytime” inspections and he posted on Twitter a simple chart which checked boxes identifying South Africa as a poster child of transparency and Iran as a non-cooperator.

At the SFRC hearing a week later, a critical moment came when Menendez asked Heinonen “ Is a good model the South African model” which featured “unprecedented cooperation by allowing anywhere, anytime inspections?” Heinonen replied by qualifying that that approach “was successful [in South Africa because] that government had changed their view. They had given up their nuclear weapons program. They wanted to close that chapter.” But “if that change doesn't take place in Iran,” he said, then effective verification is “going to be difficult as it was in North Korea” where the IAEA had extremely limited access under the 1994 Agreed Framework. Menendez concluded that the two cases were “very different… the two paradigms here, between where Iran is at and where South Africa is at.”

What are the Drivers?

What Heinonen didn’t say about South Africa’s re-evaluation of nuclear weapons is what others on the ground in South Africa have told me over the years that have elapsed since 1993–that the Apartheid state’s decisions from 1989 through 1993 to terminate the secret program and destroy its infrstructure were based upon a strategic calculation. That calculation ultimately expected that a black majority would in the near future take power, spearheaded by an African National Congress that ruling white supremacists did not want to see inherit a nuclear weapons arsenal or capability.

This version of events is decidedly not the official view of the ANC today, and since taking power it has formally embraced policies clearly in favor of disarmament and nonproliferation. But South African observers and witnesses then and now, white and black, have recalled to me again and again that at the end of the 1980s, the writing was on the wall.  A process of internally-generated regime change in South Africa was a major driver of that country’s cooperation with the IAEA.

So Senator Kirk’s cyberspace broadside–that because transparency in South Africa was “good enough for Mandela” it should be “good enough for Iran”–won’t hold true so long as drivers for political change, such as those which made the difference in South Africa in the early 1990s, are not at work in Iran today. So long as the organizations and personalities who are determined to expand Iran’s sensitive nuclear activities are confident that they are invulnerable and enjoy the support of the leadership, it would not be wise to count upon Iran suddenly reversing gears and fully cooperating with the IAEA.

On June 14, six months after Iran and the six powers concluded the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) setting up a roadmap for negotiation of a comprehensive agreement, Iran instead fundamentally challenged the IAEA’s authority to pursue PMD-related investigations, telling the IAEA in an official communication (Infcirc/866) that:

  • the IAEA is not authorized to make requests for access based on United Nations Security Council or IAEA Board of Governors resolutions which are “politically motivated, illegal, and unjust”, and that 
  • the IAEA is not authorized or required to verify the completeness and correctness of states’ nuclear inventory declarations.

Regardless of the November 2013 Framework for Cooperation touted as the beginning of a reset in Iran’s relationship with the IAEA hand in hand with the conclusion of the JPOA, Iran’s positions concerning the IAEA’s verification mandate haven’t changed since 2005. The IAEA’s authority to pursue what the JPOA calls “past issues” in Iran however critically rests on those resolutions and upon support and endorsement by member states of its work including to assure that Iran’s declarations are complete and correct. In South Africa, verification of completeness and correctness was an essential component of the IAEA’s work to resolve questions about that country’s nuclear program–even before South Africa revealed that it had secretly made nuclear arms.

This article was originally published on Arms Control Wonk.