Nations on the Threshold

Just as India and Pakistan have come out of the nuclear shadows, several other nations also have advanced nuclear programs.

World's Nuclear States (2020)
World's Nuclear States (2020)

South Africa

South Africa is the only nation to have successfully developed nuclear weapons and then voluntarily dismantled its entire nuclear-weapons program. In March 1993, then-President De Klerk announced that the nation had produced nuclear weapons, but destroyed them before signing the NPT in 1991. South Africa also became a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) in 1995.

It was further revealed that on the night of September 22, 1979, the flash detected by the U.S. VELA satellite was from a nuclear explosion. South Africa also acknowledged that it had received assistance from Israel in exchange for 550 tons of raw uranium.


Israel is not a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and has not acknowledged that it has nuclear weapons, but generally is regarded as a de facto nuclear-weapon state. Based on the real or perceived threat from its Arab and Persian neighbors, Israel continues to maintain a highly advanced military, a nuclear-weapons program and offensive and defensive missiles.

Israel's nuclear program, the most advanced in the Middle East, began in the late 1950s to meet the perceived threat to the state. Its missile program began in the 1960s with French assistance. Its nuclear arsenal is estimated at between 20 and 100 Nagasaki-sized bombs. The country has formally stated that it would not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East. Israel has not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), but has signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).


After Iraq's defeat in the 1991 Gulf War, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) discovered that Iraq had violated the NPT by secretly pursuing a nuclear-weapons program. The IAEA investigation revealed details of Baghdad's efforts to design an implosion-type nuclear explosive device and to test its non-nuclear components, including Iraq's plans to produce large quantities of lithium-6, a material used usually for the production of "boosted" atomic bombs and hydrogen bombs. IAEA officials estimated that Iraq might have been able, had the war not intervened, "to") to manufacture its first atomic weapons, using indigenously produced weapons-grade uranium, as early as the fall of 1993.

IAEA inspectors returned to Iraq in November 2002 after a four-year lapse and stayed until their March 2003 evacuation, which preceded the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The subsequent invasion by U.S.-led coalition forces was rooted in the belief that Saddam Hussein's regime had been deceiving the IAEA and hiding its WMD arsenals and capabilities.

Although investigations confirmed that Iraq's nuclear programs were destroyed after the first Gulf War, it was believed that Iraq had not abandoned its quest for nuclear weapons. It was estimated that Iraq could probably rebuild its nuclear-weapons program and manufacture a device in five to seven years, if United Nations sanctions were removed. While Iraq's WMD arsenals and capabilities were never discovered, troubling reports have emerged about missing nuclear-related equipment and materials in Iraq that, according to the IAEA, has been disappearing from previously monitored sites since the start of the war in 2003.


Iran is another threshold nation. Although Iran had been a party to the NPT since 1970, it is believed to have pursued a secret nuclear-weapons program since the mid-1980s. China and Russia have been Iran's main suppliers of nuclear technology.

As Iran's nuclear capabilities grew, the EU-3 (France, Great Britain and Germany) sought to negotiate with Iran about the issue of peaceful nuclear-research activities, including the development of a nuclear fuel-cycle infrastructure in mid-2005. Attempts were made to persuade Iran to give up its fuel-cycle ambitions and accept nuclear fuel from abroad, but Tehran made it clear that any proposal that did not guarantee Iran's access to peaceful nuclear technology would lead to the cessation of all nuclear-related negotiations with the EU-3.

Tensions were further heightened when highly enriched uranium (HEU) particle contamination was found at various locations in Iran. In August 2005, the IAEA announced that contamination was found to be of foreign origin and concluded that much of the HEU found on centrifuge parts was from imported Pakistani equipment, rather than from any enrichment activities conducted by Iran. However, The EU said Iran had lost its right to nuclear energy under Article 4 of the NPT because it violated Article 2-"not to seek or receive any assistance in the manufacture of nuclear-related weapons or other nuclear explosive devices." The country refused to comply with the resolution from the IAEA to halt its nuclear program. The next month, the IAEA found Iran in non-compliance of the NPT. The resolution passed with 21 votes of approval, with Russia and China among the 12 who abstained from voting.

The IAEA's report on Iran's nuclear ambitions topped the agenda of a closed-door meeting of the United Nations Security Council on March 17, 2006. After the meeting, the Council announced that it was close to agreement on elements of a text reaffirming that Iran should comply with calls from the IAEA Governing Board and was seeking a report from the agency's director-general on the matter.

Iran is attempting to finish its Bushehr reactor and "establish a complete nuclear fuel cycle." Though it is not clear how close Iran is to developing a nuclear device, estimate range from a few years to nearly a decade.

North Korea

Although North Korea signed the NPT in 1985, it is believed to have pursued an active nuclear-weapons program, in violation of the Treaty. The country did not permit the IAEA to conduct required inspections, until May 1992. It is assumed that North Korea has made enough plutonium for one to two nuclear weapons. In a tentative agreement with the U.S. in 1994, North Korea agreed to suspend further development of nuclear weapons in exchange for increased aid and heating oil.

In February 2005, a spokesman for the North Korean Foreign Ministry announced that North Korea had manufactured nuclear weapons. This announcement followed Pyongyang's January 2003 declaration that the country was withdrawing from the NPT. In early April 2005, North Korea shut down its 5MW(e) reactor in Yongbuon-kun and declared that the spent fuel would be extracted to "increase North Korea's nuclear deterrent." Since North Korea had been operating the reactor since late February 2003, its technicians should be able to extract enough plutonium from the spent fuel for 1-3 nuclear bombs.

In September 2005, the North Korean delegation to the Six-Party Talks in Beijing signed a "Statement of Principles" whereby Pyongyang agreed to abandon all nuclear programs and return to the NPT and IAEA safeguards. However, on the following day a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry declared that the U.S. would have to provide a light-water reactor to North Korea in order to resolve the lack of trust between the two countries. The Six-Parties agreed to meet again.

Additionally, in mid-2002, U.S. intelligence discovered that North Korea had been receiving materials from Pakistan for a highly enriched uranium-production facility. In October 2002, the U.S. State Department informed North Korea that the U.S. was aware of this program, which is a violation of Pyongyang's nonproliferation commitments. North Korean officials initially denied the existence of such a program, but then acknowledged it. The IAEA has not been able to verify the completeness nor correctness of North Korea's initial declaration submitted in 1992, and the agency cannot verify whether fissile material has been diverted to military use.


Another nation of concern was Libya. In December 2003, Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qadhafi publicly confirmed his commitment to disclose and dismantle WMD programs in his country following a nine-month period of negotiations with U.S. and UK authorities. He also pledged to adhere to the NPT, which Libya had ratified in 1975, and to sign the Additional Protocol, which was done on March 10, 2004. He then invited the IAEA to verify the elimination of nuclear-weapon-related activities in Libya, which the agency did in December 2003. Inspectors found imported equipment and technology at a number of previously secret nuclear facilities in and around Tripoli. It has been revealed that Abdul Qadeer Khan of Pakistan is responsible for providing Libya with its nuclear warhead plans, raw uranium and enrichment centrifuges through his black-market network.