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NPT 101: What does it take for a country to give up its nuclear weapons?

South Africa dismantled its nuclear weapons after resisting fierce international sanctions for years. David Albright, who wrote extensively about that transition, says it may hold lessons – of patience and pressure – for dealing with Iran.

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Only one nation has ever given up a nuclear arsenal they built themselves: South Africa.

The example set by the white-ruled apartheid regime in South Africa is a standard for arms control experts now reviewing the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in New York. In the 1970s and 80s, South Africa secretly developed six warheads in the teeth of fierce international opposition, including sanctions and a complete military embargo. It was a nuclear-armed state for a decade.

“South Africa was extremely determined [to have nuclear weapons], and it took a lot to turn them around,” says David Albright, head of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington. “They held on very deeply, and just felt they would withstand the sanctions."

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There are parallels today to Iran, says Albright, which shares a similar attachment to its peaceful nuclear energy program. The UN Security Council has ordered Iran to suspend uranium enrichment until questions are resolved about possible weapons work. Iran has instead boosted enrichment plans.


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