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How the United States used threats to influence foreign nuclear programmes

Presenting Saddam Hussein’s fate as the future or raising sanctions to unprecedented levels; these are just some of the threats the United States used to influence the nuclear programmes of Iran, Libya, and South Africa. PhD candidate Jean Yves Ndzana Ndzana examined how effective this diplomatic coercion was.

'When diplomatic coercion or "coercive diplomacy" is used in negotiations, threats are used to compel the opposing party to comply or abstain from certain actions’, says Jean Yves Ndzana Ndzana, PhD candidate at the Institute of Security and Global Affairs. 'It is a frequently utilised foreign policy instrument for achieving objectives that are unattainable through conventional diplomatic channels or military interventions. I wanted to investigate how the United States (US) used this tool to dismantle foreign nuclear programmes and how effective it was in the long run.’

Saddam Hussein’s downfall as a spectre

In his thesis, Ndzana Ndzana focuses on three countries: Iran (1979-2013), Libya (1969-2003) and South Africa (1948-1991). Of these countries, only Libya partially stopped developing its nuclear programme under US pressure. The degree of diplomatic coercion the US used varied greatly from country to country, partly because each of them was at a different stage of nuclear weapons development and the nature of their diplomatic relations with the US differed.

'The US really exploited Libya's fear to end up as the regime of Saddam Hussein.'

'Take Libya and South Africa, for instance. Libya led by Muammar Gaddafi had only just started developing a nuclear programme and could relatively easily be convinced to stop doing so by the violence the US inflicted on neighboring Iraq in the Iraq War (2003-2011). The way Saddam Hussein’s regime was toppled for, among other things, allegedly possessing nuclear weapons was a dark harbinger of what could happen to the Libyan regime. The US really exploited that fear in its negotiations with Libya and as a result got more concessions from Libya than originally intended.'

‘The US, on the other hand, was a lot less threatening towards South Africa’, Ndzana Ndzana continues. ‘This was partly because South Africa already possessed nuclear weapons and therefore had more room for negotiation, but also because South Africa was surrounded by countries that were on the side of the Soviet Union. The US did not want to lose South Africa as an ally in the Cold War that was going on at the time and often turned a blind eye as a result. For example, the US did not act boldly against foreign arms trading companies which supplied arms to South Africa despite South Africa being banned from buying arms.’

'Iran continued to increase its stockpile of gas centrifuges.'

Missed opportunities with Iran

Most aggressive, however, was the US against Iran. The US refused to make any concessions to Iran and raised existing sanctions to unprecedented levels. For example, Iranian banks were banned from making international transactions through the SWIFT channel. The US also banned Iran from enriching itself with uranium, ‘something which was legally authorised for other states’, says Ndzana Ndzana. ‘Yet, these sanctions had no effect as Iran continued to increase its stockpile of gas centrifuges (ed. cylindrical machines that produce fuel for nuclear weapons).’

'The US missed important opportunities due to this rigid stance and negatively affected its diplomatic relationship with Iran’, Ndzana Ndzana concludes. ‘For instance, like Libya, Iran felt threatened by the Iraq War and was prepared to negotiate. But then US-president George W. Bush Junior refused to negotiate with the Iranian ayatollah regime which he considered part of the “Axis of Evil”.’

Jean Yves Ndzana Ndzana will defend his dissertation on 25 April entitled ‘Understanding coercive nuclear reversal dynamics: A comparative case study of the US coercive diplomacy against the nuclear programmes of Iran, Libya and South Africa’. Follow the livestream via this link.

Text: Sabine Waasdorp

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