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Why Countries Renounce Nuclear Weapons

The West is engaged in a concerted effort to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions for fear that it is trying to develop atomic weapons. But once a country starts seeking nuclear weapons, would a government voluntarily give up those efforts?

The monopoly on nuclear weapons the United States possessed at the end of World War Two in 1945 was very short-lived. Russia quickly got the bomb, and it was followed by Britain, France and China. All five members of the post-World War Two nuclear "club" became the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

The Nuclear Club

Whether out of security or just nationalistic pride, some other smaller nations wanted membership in that exclusive club and embarked down the nuclear path as the technology became more widely available. But some nations have, at various stages of nuclear development, turned back. While India and Pakistan hold on to their nuclear weapons, Brazil, Argentina, and South Africa are among the countries that have given up their nuclear ambitions.

As the former State Department Director for Policy Planning and author of Bridled Ambition: Why Countries Constrain Their Nuclear Capabilities, Mitchell Reiss knows something about what motivates a country to renounce nuclear programs. Reiss, now vice-provost at the College of William and Mary, says the change of policy is not wholly voluntary.

"Well, 'voluntary' is a euphemism. They have been given structured incentives and, frankly, disincentives. And they've decided that on the whole, their country's future could be more secure and more prosperous if they abandoned their nuclear weapons ambitions," says Reiss.

Reiss says there are several reasons why a small nation might want nuclear weapons. It may feel it lives in a dangerous and unstable neighborhood, as Iran and Israel both believe. It may be nationalistic pride. Or, in combination with those reasons, Reiss says an ambitious bureaucracy can stoke the flames of nuclear ambition.

"Often in these countries there develops a kind of bureaucratic momentum with the atomic energy establishment and the military, usually, of combining to realize that nuclear weapons programs give them more power. It gives them larger budgets; it gives them a source of influence within their own governments and countries that they would otherwise not have," says Reiss.

Giving up those ambitions is a difficult choice for a country. Reiss says South Africa is the clearest example of nuclear renunciation, as it had not only a weapons program, but also nuclear weapons themselves. "South Africa is, I think, the poster child for nuclear renunciation. They had six fully assembled bombs, and dismantled all of them," according to Reiss.

Fifteen years ago, Brazil and Argentina agreed to cancel their weapons programs. Induced by international incentives, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan -- which inherited nuclear weapons from being part of the former Soviet Union -- shipped them back to Russia.

Charles Ferguson, a proliferation expert and a science and technology fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says changed internal and external circumstances can give a government the reason it needs to give up what may be a costly program.

"One reason is a lessening of external security pressures, concerns, threats. We saw that with South Africa to some extent. But also with South Africa we also saw another reason why countries renounce nuclear weapons programs and nuclear weapons themselves. It's because there is a change in their domestic political environment. And one big type of change that happens on a domestic level is a change sometimes from a military-controlled government to a civilian-controlled government. We saw that both with Argentina and Brazil in the 1980s," says Ferguson.

Iranian and North Korean Nuclear Ambitions

Experts say persuading Iran or North Korea to renounce nuclear ambitions is difficult, given that neither seems too concerned about what the world thinks of them. North Korea already claims it has nuclear arms, while intelligence analysts believe Iran is still at least five-to-10 years away from developing indigenous nuclear weapons.

Iran insists its program is only aimed at peaceful use of nuclear energy to meet electrical power needs. Ferguson says that while it is not certain that Iran will actually develop nuclear weapons, it is at least seeking the means to do so.

"My view is that it's not exactly clear that they're going to build nuclear weapons. But I think that it's pretty clear that they at least want the latent capability to break out into a weapons program, depending on the dynamics of the security environment," says Ferguson.

Mitchell Reiss says it is more difficult for a country to give up actual nuclear weapons than a nuclear weapons development program.

"They're further along the path than Iran currently is, and history shows it's a little easier for countries to stop themselves and to reverse course if they haven't acquired a fully-fledged nuclear arsenal. North Korea, we think, has enough plutonium for at least one or two bombs -- that's the official estimate -- probably more at this point in time. So, therefore, it's a little bit more difficult for you to dismantle a fully assembled nuclear arsenal than for you to halt at some point short of that," says Reiss.

Sanctions are widely viewed as of limited effectiveness in pressuring a country to turn back from the nuclear path because they are not always uniformly applied. Charles Ferguson says, however, that there are levers that can be applied to get a country to renounce nuclear ambitions. But, he warns, they must be applied with a careful hand.

"If we look at the past history of countries that have renounced these weapons, we have to try to affect really two major levers. One lever is the internal political system. And that can be very difficult to do from an outsider. In fact, if you pull too hard on that lever, you might have a backlash. You might have the opposite effect because you will look like you're meddling, like you're trying to forcibly change their regime. And you could make the nuclear issue a very nationalistic one, like we now see with Iran. And the other lever is trying to lessen the external security threats as best we can," says Ferguson.

Some countries, of course, have no intention of renouncing nuclear weapons. India and Pakistan, who are neighbors and archrivals, both have nuclear weapons and, by published accounts, came quite close to using them in an escalating dispute in 1999.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.