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The Nukes of Hazard

The Mystery of South Africa's A-bombs

by Eric Margolis
April 28, 1997

In 1979, an American `Vela' spy satellite detected an intense fireball over the remote South Atlantic. Analysts at the US Defense Intelligence Agency concluded that South Africa and Israel had jointly conducted a nuclear test, using a modified Israeli `Jericho' missile.

The DIA's finding was suppressed by the White House and kept secret for domestic political reasons.

Reports of secret Israeli-South African nuclear cooperation have circulated for years, including in this column. New information has surfaced that adds texture and depth to this fascinating story - and shows why nuclear or chemical proliferation is so hard to prevent.

This week, South Africa's foreign minister, Aziz Pahad, officially confirmed for the first time in an interview with the Israeli newspaper `Haaretz,' that Israel had indeed supplied nuclear technology to the former apartheid regime.

The deployment of large numbers of Cuban combat troops in Angola, beginning in 1975, and the threat of an invasion of South Africa by Soviet forces, convinced Pretoria it needed tactical nuclear weapons. South Africa turned to Israel.

Israel had secretly obtained technology for nuclear weapons and missiles from France, beginning in 1956. By the late 70's, Israel had produced a modest arsenal of nuclear weapons, but lacked uranium. South Africa became Israel's main uranium supplier. In exchange, Israel provided South Africa nuclear assistance, as well as US arms technology, which was denied to Pretoria by an American embargo.

With Israeli help, South Africa built six, air-deliverable nuclear bombs. They were fission devices, using the cannon principle that impacted together two subcritical masses of enriched uranium, producing an estimated explosive force of 10-18 kilotons.

A seventh device may have been built. Its whereabouts remains a deep mystery. In 1989, South Africa halted the nuclear program and dismantled six nuclear weapons.

Three years earlier, according to inforrmation given me by senior intelligence sources, South Africa provided nuclear weapons technology and uranium to Saddam Hussein's Iraq in exchange for oil.

Part of the nuclear technology Pretoria sold to Baghdad came from Israel. Iraq used it to begin developing its own nuclear program, designed to counter the threat of nuclear attack by Israel, and to offset neighboring Iran's numerical superiority.

In 1975, intelligence sources and defectors say Saudi Arabia, fearing Israel and Iran, decided to acquire nuclear weapons. The Saudis turned to semi-industrialized Iraq, secretly funding Baghdad's covert nuclear effort with US $5 billion.

Iran's vainglorious Shah, Reza Pahlevi, also lusted after nuclear weapons. Former Iranian Defense Minister Hassan Toufanian says he signed a secret deal with Israel in the late 1970's under which Israel was to supply Iran with a number of Jericho missiles armed with nuclear warheads in exchange for US $1 billion in Iranian oil. These 650-km range Jericho I's were jointly developed by Israel and France's `Dassault Aviation.'

The 1979 Iranian Revolution abruptly ended this project. But not secret Iranian-Israeli cooperation. In spite of being the worst of public enemies, Israel reportedly sold Islamic Iran some US $4 billion in conventional arms and spare parts during its eight-year war against Iraq.

This annoyed South Africa, whose burgeoning conventional arms industry had become a major supplier of Iraq. South Africa also wanted to supply Iran, but was shut out by Israeli competition. Today, Israel and post-apartheid South Africa are fierce competitors in the international arms market. Both nations offer excellent, rugged, combat-tested arms at moderate prices.

Foreign Minister Pahad's public admission of secret South African-Israeli nuclear cooperation was also payback time against Israel by the angry African National Congress, which now rules Pretoria.

As the apartheid era was ending, Israel urgently pressed Washington to force the white government in Pretoria to dismantle nuclear arms - before Nelson Mandela took power. Israel was determined to retain a nuclear monopoly in the Mideast and Africa and deny the African National Congress nuclear weapons.. .

Last year, `Denel,' South Africa's top arms producer, signed a US $650 million contract to modernize fire control systems of Syria's obsolete tanks. In spite of a past kill ration of 50:1 over Syrian tanks, Israel raised a hue and cry, and again pressured Washington. The Clinton Administration dutifully threatened to cut off all US aid to South Africa if the deal went ahead.

This infuriated normally saintly Nelson Mandela, who told the US to go to hell. It also stuck Clinton smack in the middle of a nasty fracas between two of his main supporters, American blacks and Jews.

After much palavering, the arms deal still seems alive. Israel is also fuming because it seems `Denel's' fire control system was reverse-engineered from an Israeli system, supplied to South Africa. Poetic justice, some would say: Israel routinely reverse-engineers US military technology, and then sells it around the world. China acquired American technology for the Patriot missile, avionics, radars, and air-to-air missiles, in this manner.

Ironically, this US military technology, illegally supplied by Israel to China, has been incorporated in weapons now being delivered by China to Israel's blood enemies, Syria and Iran. Israeli technology nearly gave Saddam Hussein a nuclear bomb. There may even be an Israeli- mothered nuke in South Africa's closet.

No one can shut the nuclear Pandora's box.

Copyright E. Margolis - 28 April, 1997

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