Saturday, September 02, 2006

SA nuke moves alarm US

Nic Dawes
01 September 2006 08:16
Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma
South African support for Iran held firm this week as a United Nations deadline for Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment programme expired, potentially triggering sanctions by the UN Security Council or the United States and its allies.

A flurry of diplomatic activity followed last week’s visit to Pretoria by Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottak, and the renewed insistence by South Africa on Iran’s “inalienable right” to pursue nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

Iran is high on the agenda of President Thabo Mbeki’s meeting next week with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Department of Foreign Affairs announced this week.

Russia is the major supplier to Iran’s nuclear programme and is eager to broker a diplomatic solution to the crisis. It is part of the “P5+1” coalition of permanent members of the Security Council -- plus Germany, which has offered Iran economic incentives to halt its enrichment activities, but is hesitant about sanctions.

As the crisis escalated last week top US nuclear diplomat James Schulte met South Africa’s representative at the International Atomic Energy Agency, Abdul Minty, in Pretoria. He was followed this week by representatives of the EU 3 -- the British, French and German component of the P5+1. No details of either meeting have been released, but during his trip Schulte publicly called on the South African government to bring its influence to bear on Iran.

Citing South Africa’s 1991 decision to end its nuclear weapons programme he told University of Pretoria’s Centre for International Political Studies: “South Africa’s example and leadership position you to help Iran’s leaders to think hard about Iran’s future and to consider two different models: the first, North Korea -- nuclear-armed, but impoverished, isolated, insignificant; the second, South Africa -- nuclear weapons-free, but secure, dynamic and a respected player in your region and the world.

“The choice should be clear. You can help Iran’s leaders make the right one.”

South Africa’s response, guided by complex domestic and geopolitical considerations, contained little to please the US. Local officials stress that the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) decision to report its concerns about Iran’s programme to the UN Security Council was -- in a departure from precedent -- reached by majority vote, not consensus. They say Iran has no legal obligation under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to engage in further “confidence-building measures”.

Writing in the latest issue of ANC journal Umrabulo, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Aziz Pahad argues that the nuclear weapons states (the US, Britain, France, Russia and China) are undermining the “balance of rights and obligations” underpinning the treaty.

South Africa played a leading role during the 1995 negotiations that lead to the treaty’s extension. The major Western powers argued for it to remain in force indefinitely, while non-aligned countries, led by Indonesia, wanted it scrapped unless the nuclear powers agreed to disarm.

South African representatives crafted a compromise extending the treaty indefinitely in exchange for a commitment from the nuclear powers to disarmament measures, including the implementation of a comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, a deal on the hand­ling of fissile material, and systematic efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons. Further revisions in 2000 added undertakings.

“There has been limited, if not minimal, progress,” Pahad writes. “In some areas there was, in fact, a reversal of these undertakings.”

During a treaty review last year South Africa sought a text balancing criticism of the nuclear weapons states’ failures with concerns about proliferation, particularly the contribution of “non-state actors” like the AQ Kahn smuggling network to the illegal spread of weapons technology.

Instead, Pahad stresses in apparent reference to George W Bush’s administration, proposals were made “to impose restrictions on the inalienable right to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes [including] a cap on new enrichment and reprocessing facilities”.

South Africa’s sensitive diplomatic moves dovetail with the development of plans to expand the capacity of the local nuclear industry.

The timing of Friday’s announcement by Minister of Minerals and Energy Buyelwa Sonjica that South Africa was considering restarting uranium enrichment has not escaped Western diplomats. But the government insists that there is no connection between backing for Iran, activism around the Non-Proliferation Treaty and South Africa’s plans to expand its nuclear energy capability.

“We believe in multilateralism; that is the principle we are defending here,” one official said. But others in the government are privately irritated by US-led attempts to limit the use of highly enriched uranium for civil purposes and to further cap enrichment by non-nuclear weapons states.

Security of supply will become increasingly important as the proportion of nuclear power in the energy mix grows. Brazil, the South Africans point out, recently began enriching uranium.

Briefing editors in Pretoria this week, Minister of Public Enterprises Alec Erwin said a study was being conducted into the “full uranium value chain”, from fuel production to medical research.

Erwin stressed that enrichment would be for peaceful purposes. “South Africa has said unequivocally that we have withdrawn our capacity for weapons-grade enrichment. Whether we should now go back to enrichment for civilian uses is a matter we are going to have to study very carefully,” he said.

*Original source