Seems like rather a big deal:
Secret South African documents reveal that Israel offered to sell nuclear warheads to the apartheid regime, providing the first official documentary evidence of the state’s possession of nuclear weapons.
The “top secret” minutes of meetings between senior officials from the two countries in 1975 show that South Africa’s defence minister, PW Botha, asked for the warheads and Shimon Peres, then Israel’s defence minister and now its president, responded by offering them “in three sizes”. The two men also signed a broad-ranging agreement governing military ties between the two countries that included a clause declaring that “the very existence of this agreement” was to remain secret.
The documents, uncovered by an American academic, Sasha Polakow-Suransky, in research for a book on the close relationship between the two countries, provide evidence that Israel has nuclear weapons despite its policy of “ambiguity” in neither confirming nor denying their existence.
The Israeli authorities tried to stop South Africa’s post-apartheid government declassifying the documents at Polakow-Suransky’s request and the revelations will be an embarrassment, particularly as this week’s nuclear non-proliferation talks in New York focus on the Middle East.
They will also undermine Israel’s attempts to suggest that, if it has nuclear weapons, it is a “responsible” power that would not misuse them, whereas countries such as Iran cannot be trusted.
This isn’t completely new; see here for a good run-down of Israeli-South African cooperation on nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. The evidence of an offer to sell nuclear warheads isn’t a 100% clear smoking gun, but it’s fairly close:
The top secret minutes of the meeting record that: “Minister Botha expressed interest in a limited number of units of Chalet subject to the correct payload being available.” The document then records: “Minister Peres said the correct payload was available in three sizes. Minister Botha expressed his appreciation and said that he would ask for advice.” The “three sizes” are believed to refer to the conventional, chemical and nuclear weapons.
The use of a euphemism, the “correct payload”, reflects Israeli sensitivity over the nuclear issue and would not have been used had it been referring to conventional weapons. It can also only have meant nuclear warheads as Armstrong’s memorandum makes clear South Africa was interested in the Jericho missiles solely as a means of delivering nuclear weapons.
Emphasis mine. “Correct payload” could conceivably mean something other than a nuclear warhead, but it’s fair to say that the inference is likely correct. It should also be emphasized that the sale would have required Prime Minister Rabin’s approval, although there’s little reason to think that Peres would have made the offer without Rabin’s knowledge. Let’s put it this way; if this sort of evidence emerged about a potential deal between North Korea, Syria, and Iran, the Israeli response could hardly be characterized as tepid. The fact that the chief negotiator in the deal is the sitting President of Israel also means that this can’t legitimately be described as a “youthful indiscretion.” Moreover, it’s difficult to reasonably argue that the sale was necessary to the maintenance of the Israeli-South African nuclear relationship, and consequently to Israel’s ability to develop a nuclear deterrent. The premise of the sale is that Israel already possessed nuclear warheads and the ballistic missiles capable of carrying them; it didn’t, at that point, have to sell them to anyone.
We should also be clear that this isn’t what could be characterized as “good” proliferation, whatever that means. South Africa was obviously not a democracy in 1975; rather, it was a brutal, repressive police state that systematically crushed the freedom of the vast majority of its population. If you think that domestic repression has implications for foreign policy (realists don’t, but some do), then obviously it’s not ideal to sell nukes to this kind of state. Moreover, the same “what if the state collapses” concerns that apply to Iran apply to South Africa; there were ample concerns in the 1970s that
freedom fightersdirty communist terrorists would overthrow the Pretoria regime, which would then have led to obvious “loose nuke” issues.
The larger issue is obviously this: Evidence that a chief proxy of the United States offered to sell actual, functioning nuclear warheads on actual, functioning ballistic missiles to an autocratic, unstable state somewhat undermines US “moral authority” to undertake anti-proliferation efforts in nuclear and ballistic missile technology. Iran is enriching uranium? Well, Israel offered to sell nukes to apartheid South Africa. North Korea is selling ballistic missile parts and know how? Well, Israel offered to sell Jericho missiles, complete with nuclear warheads, to South Africa. In short, a US proxy offered to engage in behavior that was by several degrees worse than any behavior that Pakistan, North Korea, Syria, Libya, or Iran have ever been credibly accused of engaging in.
That’s kind of a problem. The best we can say, perhaps, is that there’s no indication as of yet that the United States was involved. Indeed, the United States mildly sanctioned Israel for past bad behavior after much of the Israeli-South African relationship became known in the wake of the end of apartheid.