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Nations that Dismantled Nuclear Arms Point the Way Forward

By Christopher Connell
Special Correspondent

Washington — It lacks the drama of the Cuban missile crisis, but a generation ago Brazil and Argentina stepped back from a path that could have triggered a nuclear arms race in South America.

Other countries — Libya, South Africa, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus — also offer examples of how to bank the fires that fuel nuclear ambitions. Can such nonproliferation success stories be replicated in the Middle East, Korean Peninsula and Indian subcontinent?

Nonproliferation experts agree that there are no precise parallels to the complex situations arousing global concerns in Iran and still unresolved with North Korea, but there are lessons to be learned from earlier circumstances in which countries abandoned quests for nuclear weapons.

The turnabout in South America came in 1991, after Argentina and Brazil emerged from military dictatorships and rebuilt democratic institutions. Shots have not been fired across the Rio de la Plata since the 1820s, but Brazil (the world’s fifth-largest country) and Argentina (eighth by size and 31st by population) had long jockeyed without acrimony for leadership in the Southern Cone. Both had atomic energy commissions of long standing, and each pursued efforts to enrich uranium, principally for nuclear power plants.

“What you saw in both countries was a change in political orientation that pushed them toward integration with the international community and improved relations with the United States and the global economy at large,” said Leonard Spector, deputy director of the Monterey Institute of International Studies’ James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California. In Buenos Aires, the junta responsible for infamous disappearances of dissidents during Argentina’s so-called Dirty War (1976–1983) was discredited by Argentina’s defeat in the 1982 Falklands War. When the junta collapsed, so did the generals’ “vision of this extremely nationalistic Argentina,” Spector said.

The two countries signed their own nonproliferation pact in 1991. A year earlier, in September 1990, Brazilian President Fernando Collor de Mello had flown to the remote Cachimbo air base in the Amazon rainforest and, in front of his generals, symbolically threw two shovelfuls of concrete down a 1,000-foot shaft that the military had secretly built for a possible nuclear test explosion. (Argentina signed the global Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1995 and Brazil agreed to be bound by the treaty in 1997.)

Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, which works for global security, said sanctions that the United States imposed in the 1970s barring aid to countries trafficking in nuclear enrichment technology made it more difficult for Argentina and Brazil to acquire nuclear technology and bought time “that allowed the people of Argentina and Brazil to change their regimes. The lesson is sanctions alone rarely work — but they are an important part of the mix.”

Cirincione — author of Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons (2007) and Deadly Arsenals: Tracking Weapons of Mass Destruction, a 2002 report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace — draws a second lesson from the denouement of the arms race in South America. “The proliferation problem is not just one of rogue regimes; we’re not just worried about hostile states acquiring nuclear weapons. We’re worried about anybody acquiring nuclear weapons,” he said. “It’s a mistake to try to pick and choose good guys and bad guys, to say that it’s OK for India to get nuclear weapons, but not OK for Iran. You cannot sustain that double standard.”

“If Argentina and Brazil had succeeded, other countries in South America would likely have followed suit. And, since governments do change in these countries, today’s ‘good guy’ can be tomorrow’s hostile state,” he said.

All 33 nations in Latin America and the Caribbean have signed the 1967 Treaty of Tlatelolco ( ), making the region a nuclear-weapon-free zone. Cuba, long a holdout, in 1995 became the last country to sign.


José Goldemberg, a Brazilian physicist and Brazil’s former secretary of state for science and technology, helped craft the 1991 agreement that gave international inspectors access to the nuclear programs in Brazil and Argentina. In a 2006 article ( ) in the journal Arms Control Today, he says countries may strive to acquire nuclear weapons not just to intimidate rivals, but for national pride, “the status and prestige associated with mastering nuclear technology.”

He concludes that many factors that fuel nuclear ambitions “are immune to outside influence” and that the best hope for curbing them may be the “neighbor-controlling-neighbor” tack followed in South America.

But that approach only goes so far. By e-mail, the University of São Paulo professor said the two Koreas and Iran, Iraq and Israel in the Middle East lack the “symmetry” that allows the neighbor-controlling-neighbor approach to work. “Some symmetry in nuclear development is essential for an agreement of the type we reached with Argentina,” he said. Goldemberg remains optimistic that this tack could still work with India and Pakistan, despite “the enormous bitterness prevalent in the two countries.”

Political scientist John Redick said, “There isn’t anything exactly like the Argentine-Brazilian situation.” Redick, a foundation executive and an authority on Latin American nonproliferation issues, said, “A few years ago we took some Argentine and Brazilian experts from the bilateral nuclear inspection agency to the Middle East to visit with the Israel nuclear energy commission, and then did the same thing in Egypt.” The same group later visited South Korea.

Those visits convinced Redick that “you can draw certain lessons about the Argentine-Brazilian experience, but there’s nothing really quite like it. You can’t transfer it whole cloth to the other situations.”

Meanwhile, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has stepped up spending on his country’s program to build a nuclear-powered submarine. His defense minister has said construction will start in 2016 and be completed by 2021.

While Brazil initially balked in 2004 at giving the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) full access to its uranium-enrichment facility in Resende and has not signed the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Safeguards Agreement ( ) that would allow for wider international inspections, the IAEA has not raised concerns about the Brazilian facility like the alarms it has sounded over Iran’s nuclear program, including the once-secret enrichment plant built inside a mountain near the holy city of Qom.

Brazilian officials stoutly defend their refusal to sign the additional safeguards protocol and allow tighter international monitoring. Ambassador Antonio Guerreiro, permanent representative to the IAEA for Brazil, has argued, “It is simply not fair to expect countries which have already made unequivocal, credible and verifiable commitments to forswear nuclear weapons to implement further enhanced verification measures until the international community has before it at least some kind of time frame within which to expect the achievement of the objective of a world free of nuclear weapons.”

All of which suggests another lesson about nonproliferation: The work never stops.

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State.  Web site:
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