Secret Israel–South Africa Nuclear Deal Exposed
Recently declassified 'top secret' documents show that Israel offered to sell nuclear warheads to South Africa’s white-racist apartheid regime in 1975.
As the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference concludes in New York, there is no expectation that the world will rapidly eliminate these mass-destruction weapons. But the focus has sharply turned on West Asia because the Western powers, led by the United States, are keen that Iran freezes its nuclear activities. Yet inevitably, attention has also got riveted on Israel, the region’s sole nuclear weapons power. In the limelight too is the issue of nuclear material falling into the hands of extremist groups like al-Qaeda.
Against this backdrop comes the hugely important, sensational, but not sensationalist, disclosure that Israel offered to sell nuclear warheads to South Africa’s white-racist apartheid regime in 1975, and the two states coordinated their military programmes and strategic approaches. This disclosure, contained in a just-released book The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa, is based on “top secret” minutes of meetings between senior South African and Israeli officials. These were uncovered by a US-based scholar Sasha Polakow-Suransky through documents recently declassified by the South African government. The Israeli government tried hard to stop their declassification, but failed.
The disclosure will seriously embarrass Israel, which faces growing international isolation and alienation from Western public opinion, thanks to its intransigent refusal to end the occupation of Palestine and its policy of building illegal settlements on Palestinian land.
The Unspoken Alliance says that South Africa’s defence minister PW Botha asked for the nuclear warheads. Shimon Peres, then Israel’s defence minister and now its president, responded by offering them “in three sizes”. The two also signed a wide-ranging agreement on bilateral military relations, with a clause stipulating that its “very existence” must remain secret. The military relations were crucial at a time when South Africa faced international economic and military sanctions. Israel continued to supply it arms generously. South Africa is believed to have made at least six nuclear weapons, which it destroyed when apartheid’s end became imminent.
The book drives another stake into Israel’s “nuclear ambiguity” policy of neither confirming nor denying it has nuclear weapons. Many independent sources, including Israeli nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu (who spent 18 years in jail), have confirmed that Israel has 200 to 300 nuclear warheads and numerous nuclear-capable missiles.
The new revelations decisively demolish Israel’s claim that even if it has nuclear weapons, it’s a “responsible” state which won’t use them—unlike Iran, which can’t be trusted not to use them or transfer them to Hezbollah. But a nation which not only helped a pariah state like apartheid South Africa to overcome its richly-deserved international isolation, but also equipped it with mass-destruction weapons, is by no stretch of the imagination “responsible”. South Africa’s military wanted nuclear weapons as a deterrent and for potential attacks upon its neighbours—just as Israel did, and still does.
It’s hard to imagine a state in modern history that is more shamelessly racist, unequal, undemocratic, and inhuman than apartheid South Africa. If apartheid South Africa was at minimum a rogue state, Zionist Israel is in the same league.
Pulakow-Suransky shows that Israeli and South African officials held crucial talks in March 1975, at which the former “formally offered to sell South Africa some of the nuclear-capable Jericho missiles in its arsenal”. Among those present was South Africa’s military chief RF Armstrong, who drafted a “top secret” memorandum which detailed how the missiles would benefit South Africa—but only if they were fitted with nuclear weapons.
After the 1973 Yom Kippur war, Israel was short of uranium, of which South Africa has large reserves. Israel also needed hard currency. It got both by selling conventional weapons, and by sharing nuclear know-how with South Africa and converting some of its yellowcake (mixed oxides of uranium) into weapons-grade plutonium. The Israel–South Africa alliance was close and strategic. In 1987, Israel adopted its own version of sanctions against South Africa, but it didn’t let these affect the existing arms contracts with South Africa, worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
The driving force of the alliance wasn’t purely military. It lay in the two leaderships’ shared belief that theirs were two relatively small nations facing a hostile external environment as they struggled to guard “their land” and “identity”. Common to them was the deplorably parochial goal of keeping their privileged colonial settlers in power. Common too was their self-assigned role as regional bulwarks against Communism. This gained them Western support—until global opinion turned totally hostile to apartheid. The Israeli leadership conveniently forgot the role Nazi sympathisers had played in putting apartheid’s architects into power.
If the two nations’ leaders had moral qualms or political hesitation about acquiring the ultimate weapons of terror—of which there are few signs—they overcame these remarkably quickly. In a secret deal, South Africa lifted safeguards on 450 tonnes of yellowcake sold to Israel in return for Israeli tritium to be used as a nuclear weapons booster. Israel also bailed out a South African politician whose bankruptcy would have scuppered the deal.
Israel emerges from these disclosures as an utterly cynical state culpable of nuclear proliferation. Yet, South Africa isn’t the only country with which Israel had shady nuclear dealings. Equally implicated from the 1950s onwards were Britain and France, which clandestinely supplied Israel nuclear materials, including heavy water. Israel is different from other nuclear weapons-states (NWSs) in that its nuclear weapons are undeclared—unlike those of the US, Russia, Britain, France, China, India and Pakistan (or of North Korea, which exploded a crude nuclear bomb in 2006 and another one last year). Israel, like India and Pakistan, hasn’t signed the NPT.
However, although dubious, Israel’s record isn’t very different from that of the other NWSs in respect of clandestine nuclear collaborations, shady deals and complicity in other countries’ weapons pursuits. They are culpable of proliferating nuclear weapons or turning a blind eye to their development. The US and UK, and the Soviet Union and China, have an early history of weapons collaboration.
India has had overt and clandestine nuclear dealings with the US, UK, Canada, the USSR, China, Russia, even Norway. India could not have exploded its first bomb in 1974 without the CIRUS reactor. CIRUS is an acronym for “Canada-India-Research-Reactor-US”. The Canadians designed and built it and the US supplied heavy water to it. Four years after CIRUS became operational in 1960, India started extracting plutonium from its spent fuel, which went into the 1974 bomb. The explosion was called “peaceful” partly because India didn’t want to be seen violating its professed commitment to nuclear disarmament, and partly because it lacked the stomach to carry out more tests. India also didn’t want to be accused of breaching its “peaceful” use legal commitments to the US and Canada.
Pakistan has a long history of clandestine collaboration with China, including transfer of nuclear weapons designs, and pilfering centrifuge designs and suppliers’ lists from the Netherlands. The AQ Khan network’s dealings with North Korea, Libya and Iran are legend. These needed the collusion of the Pakistani military which exclusively controls the nuclear weapons programme. The US turned a blind eye to Islamabad’s nuclear preparations during the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, which made Pakistan a “frontline” state. Poor and technologically primitive North Korea couldn’t have made its bomb without a small Soviet-built reactor.
The point is plain. All NWSs are guilty of either deliberate proliferation or conducting activities in violation of their dual-use technology commitments. Worse, they are the only nations to have used nuclear weapons or practised nuclear blackmail. So, they are totally hypocritical when they single out countries like Iran. Nuclear weapons are unacceptably dangerous. They are safe in nobody’s hands.
Although all NWSs rationalise their nuclear arsenals via “deterrence”, they have doctrines for the actual use of nuclear weapons. Even deterrence entails that they’re in a state of readiness to use them against unarmed civilians. The US and USSR came close to doing this during the Cold War. Even Israel contemplated doing so in 1973. Pakistan and India launched nuclear preparations during the 1999 Kargil conflict, and again, even more dangerously, in the 10 months-long standoff in 2001.
The greatest nuclear danger today emanates from the NWSs, which seek security through nuclear terror. Non-state actors like al-Qaeda, however nasty and dishonourable, are nowhere near acquiring nuclear weapons. Leave alone build the elaborate and relatively sophisticated infrastructure that nuclear programmes need, they have even failed to clandestinely buy fissile material.
The hype about nuclear material falling into the hands of “terrorist groups” is largely a ploy to legitimise the NWSs’ possession of nuclear weapons and to create a fraudulent distinction between “responsible” and “irresponsible” actors. No government that is committed to bombing millions of non-combatant civilians to extermination can be remotely considered “responsible”. “Responsible NWSs” is a contradiction in terms.
Yet, so long as nuclear weapons exist and are regarded as a currency of power, both state and non-state actors will be tempted to acquire them. The only way of discouraging or preventing them is to eliminate all nuclear weapons globally. A secure world must be free of nuclear weapons.