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(photo credit: AP [file])
With the international community poised to make a critical decision in Vienna regarding whether to send the Iranian nuclear dossier to the United Nations Security Council, South Africa's behavior on the issue has raised eyebrows in a number of western capitals, including Jerusalem.
South Africa was one of five countries, alongside Libya, Algeria, Indonesia and Belarus, which abstained when the International Atomic Energy Agency voted last month to report Iran to the Security Council. Only Cuba, Syria and Venezuela voted against.
Western diplomatic officials said South African President Thabo Mbeki's government has come under a degree of "cajoling" in recent weeks from the US and European countries to stop giving Teheran diplomatic cover to continue its nuclear program.
One western official said that over the last few months South Africa has been the most reticent, among non-Arab or Muslim players on the international stage, to join in international condemnations of Iran.
The reasons given for this are varied, and include a South African sense of solidarity with the Iranians as a member of the "revolutionary club," support the ruling African National Congress received from Iran during the years when it fought apartheid, and strong bilateral trade relations.
South Africa's position on the Iranian issue is important, the officials said, because of the country's leadership position in Africa, its standing in the Nonaligned Movement, and because of its special moral standing as the only country that voluntarily dismantled its own nuclear arsenal following the end of the apartheid regime in 1994.
According to these officials, while Europe has come over to the American and Israeli position over the last year that Iran is clearly pursuing a nuclear weapons program, South Africa has not yet come to that conclusion and continues to advocate Teheran's right to pursue nuclear research for civilian purposes.
Israel has been one of a number of countries, including the US and England, that have engaged South Africa on this matter over the last few weeks and months, without a great deal of success.
The South Africans, according to diplomatic officials, maintain that they are one of the few countries with direct ties to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and to the country's supreme Islamic leadership.
The officials said that South Africa is trying to use this status with the Iranian leadership as a way to upgrade its status as a major player on the world's stage.
Some officials, however, believe that South Africa has already overplayed its hand, and that rather than upgrading its position, by voting with countries like Libya, Algeria, Belarus and Indonesia, it is placing itself in international company that it does not necessarily want to be associated with.
Israeli and US officials deny that South Africa is supplying Iran with any nuclear material or know-how to help develop its program, with one Israeli official saying that South Africa has behaved "very responsibly" when it comes to its nuclear know-how and materials.
Hussein Solomon, the director of the center for international political studies at the University of Pretoria, said there were a number of reasons for South Africa's granting Iran diplomatic cover.
First of all, Solomon said, South Africa is interested in developing its own civilian nuclear program for its own energy need. "There is a feeling that if Iran is stopped along this route, South Africa may be stopped as well," he said.
Secondly, he said, since 1994 South Africa has been very much pushing for leadership among the nonaligned countries, and for the rights of the global south in its relationship with the stronger north. "There is a feeling that the west, the imperialist west, the hegemonic west, has been picking on a number of small countries, and that this is why the South Africans need to show solidarity with the Iranian people," he said.
According to this argument, South Africa objects to a situation where the western powers keep nuclear technology from the developing world.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, said Solomon, is that "Iran provides South Africa with cheap oil, and we don't want to anger them."
Solomon said that South Africa's position on the Iranian nuclear issue has gone almost unnoticed inside South Africa, which is currently preoccupied with domestic scandals and recent municipal elections.
Solomon said he did not think that South Africa's vocal Muslim community, which still makes up only 1.5% - 1.7% of the country's population, has had any impact on shaping Pretoria's policy toward Iran.
While the community has economic and political clout far beyond its size, and while many South African Moslems are pro-Iranian and the Iranians support many Moslem groups in the country, Solomon said, "I don't think that they are significant in terms of the policy making process itself."