Only thirteen states have ever possessed nuclear weapons (including North Korea, whose potential nuclear arsenal is still very much an unknown quantity). Of these thirteen, only four have ever given up their nuclear status, and of these only one had an independent nuclear programme anyway.
This latter state is South Africa, whose Apartheid government assembled six nuclear weapons after several decades of research partly indebted to American scientific expertise. Whilst there is no concrete evidence that South Africa ever conducted any nuclear testing, the 1979 Vela Incident – in which a ‘double flash’ of light typical of such experiments was detected by US monitors – is thought to have been a joint test between South Africa and Israel.
South Africa voluntarily dismantled its nuclear stockpile in 1989 for what it considered to be an essential reason; the Apartheid regime was failing and the black-majority African National Congress (ANC) was almost certain to take power within the next few years. To concede their country was one thing for the Afrikaners but to give their black successors nuclear capabilities was unthinkable.
The only other states to have given up their nuclear weapons are Kazakhstan, Belarus and Ukraine. All of these countries had been part of the Soviet Union and on independence in the early 1990s found themselves with a nuclear stockpile. Under pressure from Russia, these weapons were returned to the ‘motherland’ and were, in essence, not indigenous designs, just as the American nuclear warheads stored in Europe today aren’t.
So South Africa is the only country to abandon its indigenous nuclear programme in history. Without the eventual success of the anti-Apartheid movement, the Nationalist Party would surely not have given up such a precious deterrent and status symbol.
Therefore to think that Iran will turn its back on its own nuclear development is almost unthinkable. Sanctions may hurt yet when it comes to nuclear power economics often go out of the window. Look at North Korea, or even Pakistan for that instance. They are two nations who cannot really afford a nuclear arsenal and still consider such technology essential for their self-preservation.
Global leaders have long voiced concern over the possibilityty that North Korea – a state that will almost certainly implode one day – will acquire credible nuclear weapons and the same fears should be applied to Iran. This is not a stable nation, with great fissures between the conservative political and religious hierarchy and the reformist beliefs of some younger politicians and pro-democracy activists.
The P5+1 group has to take a tough stance and recognise that, in all probability, Iran will continue its pursuit of nuclear weapons. This will raise the stakes in the Middle East still further and may prompt Israel to make the decisive move in breaking the uneasy status quo.
When that day comes, the whole world will sit up and take notice.