Analysis: Why is S. Africa helping Iran?

South African and Iranian defense ministers meet to discuss mutual defense cooperation.

iran nuke plant 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
iran nuke plant 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
In August 2004 South African Defense Minister Patrick "Terror" Lekota and his Iranian counterpart, Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani, met in Teheran to discuss an expansion of mutual cooperation between the two countries, especially in the domain of defense. Lekota's visit to Iran was the first such visit by a South African defense minister since the Iranian revolution in 1979. At the conclusion of the meeting the two countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding on bilateral cooperation. Israel's Channel 1 reported that the understanding included an arrangement for South Africa to sell uranium to Iran, a claim rejected by the SA Ministry of Defense. The ministry, however, would not comment on the particulars of the Memorandum of Understanding, nor would it say if Iran had made a request to buy uranium from South Africa. Professor Hussein Solomon, Director of the Center for International Political Studies at the University of Pretoria, believes that South Africa's nuclear assistance to Iran revolves around three issues: The first is that South Africa intends to create its own civilian nuclear program and, to the extent that Iran is prevented from developing its own ostensibly civilian nuclear program, Pretoria feels that it might negatively impact South Africa's plans. "Personally I think if this is true it is stupid on account of the historical record of Teheran's lies as well as the volatility of the Middle East region vis-a-vis Southern Africa. In addition people who threaten to wipe other countries off the map should not have nuclear weapons," Solomon told The Jerusalem Post in an e-mail exchange from Pretoria. The second issue is that South Africa may also be interested in resuscitating the old Non-Aligned Movement bloc with players like China, and possibly even Russia and Brazil, to counter perceived US hegemony and unilateralism. Indeed, China and Pakistan have also made overtures to Iran, which point to destabilization and undermining of US positioning in the region. Finally, Solomon believes that there have been stronger relations developing for some years between the Iranian elite and the ruling African National Congress elite. "This will grow stronger as SA searches for more energy resources," Solomon said. South Africa has a domestic nuclear energy and research program as well as large natural deposits of uranium. During the apartheid era South Africa had a covert nuclear weapons program that developed at least six nuclear warheads, along with a variety of missiles and other conventional weapons.