Why Iran's nuclear program would not exist without South Africa

South Africa has been one of the most consistent supporters of Iran for decades. How you ask? In short, Iran's nuclear program would not exist without it.

Just the Basics

  • From Reza Shah to Ayatollah Khamenei, South Africa and the African National Congress have consistently been key friends for Iran in Africa

  • Apartheid South Africa exported hundreds of tons of uranium yellow cake to Iran prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution, laying the groundwork for the Islamic Republic's nuclear program

  • South Africa has been a staunch support of Iran in fora such as the IAEA, United Nations and Non-Aligned Movement, fighting against sanctions

The recent disruption by Israeli security forces of an Iranian-funded, Palestinian terror cell initially appears to be another footnote in a decades-long struggle. What makes this incident interesting is the African connection in this story: the extremists were recruited in South Africa.

Israeli intelligence services claim that Iranian agents recruited a Palestinian living in South Africa, who in turn helped set up contacts with visiting Palestinians to create a terrorist cell in Israel. “Apparently the Iranians found fertile ground in South Africa,” observes Adi Carmi, an ex-Shin Bet intelligence officer. “I do not recall South Africa ever having been used by the Iranians as a terrorist recruiting ground for the aim of carrying out attacks.”

Such a statement may lead you to dismiss this incident as a mere curiosity - an uncharacteristic, but given our increasingly interconnected world, not unthinkable event - before drifting your gaze onto the next news item. However, this is where you would be wrong. Tehran’s ties with South Africa have a long and storied history, and the details of Iranian-South African relations are one of the great under-reported facets of Tehran’s international relations. In short, Iran’s nuclear program would not exist without South Africa.

From exile to export partners

To fully understand the complexity of South Africa’s relations with Iran, it is necessary to embark on a historical detour, which will round out our understanding of current events, to which we will return later.

Following the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran in 1941, the two powers divided Iran in order to secure the nation’s oil reserves for the USSR’s war effort against Nazi Germany on the Eastern front. The invasion was also trigger by the (in the Allies’ opinion) pro-German attitudes of the Iranian monarch, Reza Shah. Specifically, while the United Kingdom controlled Iran’s oil resources through the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, the Shah preferred to acquire technical expertise from other countries, including Germany.

British claims that German engineers and technicians in Iran were spies seeking to sabotage the Allied war effort were refuted by the Iranian government, and London’s demand that all German nationals be expelled from Iran was also ignored. This refusal led the UK and USSR to invade and occupy Iran for the remainder of the Second World War, despite Iran’s official declaration of neutrality.

Reza Shah’s obstinance in the face of British demands led to his forced abdication in favour of his son, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. Following his ouster in 1941, Reza Shah was exiled to South Africa, and remained in the country until his death in 1944. Following the war, relations between Iran and South Africa deepened, with the incumbent Shah visiting the country in the 1970s.

Gratitude for hosting his father, combined with his concerns about communist expansion in Africa saw Iran maintain close relations with South Africa from 1945 to 1979: a consulate was established in Pretoria in 1970. Indeed, relations only cooled during the tenure of nationalist Iranian leader, Prime Minister Muhammed Mosaddeq during 1951-53.

The Shah viewed South Africa as a bulwark against communism and saw supporting the regime as part of his larger rivalry with Arab states, notably Egypt - which together with its close ties to the Soviet Union was playing an increasingly prominent role in African anti-colonial movements. Consequently, the Shah fostered close relations with the Apartheid regime in order to bolster the anti-communist bloc in Africa as well as to export oil to South Africa.

In short order, South Africa became an arena for competition between Iran and Arab oil producing states. Still angry about (in his view) Arab states taking advantage of Iran’s nationalization crisis (1951-53) to increase their market share, the Shah sought to undermine Arab market share in Africa.

[South African yellowcake] is the main, or possibly the only material being used in Iran’s enrichment plans.

Fortunately for the Shah, the 1973 oil embargo launched by the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting States (OAPEC), whose members also comprised the majority of the larger Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) fit into his plans perfectly. Initially designed to punish Western supporters of Israel’s Yom Kippur War, the embargo was eventually widened to include other countries, including South Africa.

Despite the embargo, Iran continued to sell oil to South Africa, so that by 1978, Iran was responsible for 90 percent of South Africa’s oil imports. This state of affairs was quickly reversed following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, with the new Iranian regime severing ties (and oil shipments) with South Africa’s Apartheid government. In another reversal, several Arab states decided to once again sell oil to South Africa, in part because the country had almost run out of oil between 1979-80.

How South Africa birthed Iran's nuclear program

More than oil, the lasting legacy of Iranian-South African relations is uranium. Private interests in South Africa established the Nuclear Fuels Corporation of South Africa (NUFCOR SA) in 1968 as a vehicle to market the country’s uranium stocks. As a major gold producer, South Africa found itself with ample uranium reserves as a by-product of gold processing.

In 1975, NUFCOR sealed a deal to supply Iran with 2,400 tonnes of uranium concentrate powder, colloquially known as ‘yellowcake’. NUFCOR managed to deliver 775 tonnes to Iran before the 1979 Islamic Revolution put the deal on hold. Despite having cut ties with the Apartheid government, connections between the Islamic Republic and NUFCOR continued to exist, with the latter proposing to supply 1,485 tonnes of yellowcake to Iran in 1984: the deal was eventually blocked by the Apartheid government in 1986.


Spare shell casings from South Africa's nuclear weapons program


The undelivered uranium was eventually sold to American and German companies with Iran receiving a refund in 1995. It was only in the 1990s that Iran informed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of its purchases, and while the IAEA confirms that Iran’s yellowcake stockpile came from South Africa, it makes no mention of any companies involved. The World Nuclear Association has also stated that South African yellowcake is “the main, or possibly the only material being used in Iran’s enrichment plans.”

Its connections with the Iranian nuclear program aside, South Africa was already an international pariah due to its own nuclear weapons program. Begun in 1967, South Africa eventually amassed a stockpile of six nuclear weapons, and is suspected to have carried out a nuclear test in the South Atlantic in 1979. Ten years later, the program was voluntarily dismantled by the South African government, with the country acceding to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1991.

Following the end of Apartheid in 1994, Iran and South Africa re-established formal relations. The Iranian government had long been a supporter of the African National Congress (ANC) and its leadership including Nelson Mandela: former ANC president-in-exile, Oliver Tambo was one of the first to send congratulations to the new revolutionary government in 1979.


'Yellowcake' is a refined form of uranium concentrate, but is not very radioactive, due to its four billion year half-life.


When Nelson Mandela won the 1994 election, Iran’s investment in the ANC paid off, with both nations enjoying warm relations ever since. The ANC’s dominance of South African politics for the last 24 years has provided stability regarding South Africa’s position on Iran, as Iran’s legacy of aid to the ANC continues to ingratiate Tehran with South Africa’s leaders.

Consequently, Nelson Mandela’s government discussed selling enrichment expertise from South Africa’s nuclear program to Iran in 1997. Furthermore, Javad Vaidi - an official from the Islamic Republic’s National Security Council - reported that South Africa offered to sell uranium oxide concentrate to Iran and help in Tehran’s stalled enrichment activities, according to a December 2005 memorandum of understanding.

South Africa caught between Washington and Tehran

It is within this historical context that we return to South Africa’s more contemporary dealings with Iran. Concerns about Iran’s nuclear program over the past decade have led to the regime’s increasing international isolation and a bevy of sanctions against Tehran. The inclusion of Iran in President George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” during his 2002 State of the Union address only heightened American antagonism towards Tehran. By the late 2000s, American intelligence services were actively seeking to catalogue and limit Iranian-third party contacts. Unsurprisingly, South Africa quickly came to the attention of the CIA.

By 2008, Iran had once again become the largest oil exporter to South Africa, and bilateral trade reached $20 billion in 2012. During this time, South Africa also came under increasing pressure from the United States to provide intelligence on Iranian activities in the country. While officially neutral and a prominent member of the Non-Aligned Movement, since the late 2000s South Africa has been squeezed by Washington and its allies for maintaining normal relations with Iran.


South Africa was one of several countries to receive a six month deferral on Iranian sanctions by the United States in 2012, due to their reliance on Iranian energy imports.


As a result, in 2010 South African intelligence officials compiled a meticulous 128 page report on all suspected Iranian agents in the country. Suspicions were raised by the disproportionate number of Iranian embassy staff in South Africa (17 versus five at South Africa’s embassy in Iran), and the report noted that “private sectors such as the Persian carpet trade are used to accommodate intelligence officers in its structures.”

As a sign of the quandary South Africa found itself in the report also repeatedly stressed that South Africa did not consider Iran to be a threat. This position was reaffirmed in a 2014 meeting between intelligence personnel from South Africa and the UAE who described Iran’s presence in Africa as “not as enduring or solid as generally accepted.”

2010 also saw Israel’s Mossad send warnings to the South African government about a potential attempt by Iran to illicitly acquire yellowcake from an Armenian broker. Mossad warned Pretoria that said broker “informed his intermediary in Iran that on 19 September he was departing for Turkey where he would be preparing ‘the yellow goods’ - we assess this to be yellowcake - from the same country where Iran previously obtained 500 tonnes, which we assess is South Africa.”

In 2015, leaked spy cables revealed that the South African government was complicit in - often undeclared - American efforts to tighten sanctions against Iran and block access to scarce minerals in Africa. Consequently, despite not viewing Iran as a threat, South African intelligence monitored Iranian embassy staff at Washington’s behest.

Economic ties and intrigue

While South Africa has aiding American intelligence gathering efforts, Pretoria and Iran continued to deepen their relations. 2016 saw the first visit by an Iranian minister of defence to South Africa since 1979, and both countries agreed to boost defence and military cooperation as well as launch a joint anti-terror campaign in December 2016. South African arms manufacturer Denel has also applied to the United Nations to sell its Umkhanto surface-to-air missile system to Iran for $126 million. The Middle East has become a financial lifeline for the South African arms industry which has had difficulties breaking into international markets in the past.

Private sector cooperation between the two countries is also growing, as is the level of intrigue. Of particular interest is Africa’s largest telecom - South Africa’s MTN - which has made substantial investments in Iran, with a 49 percent stakes in both in IranCell Telecommunication Services and state-owned internet provider Iranian Net. MTN has also invested in Iran Internet Group with runs the Snapp.ir ride sharing app.


South Africa is eyeing Iran as a customer of its Umkhonto surface-to-air missile system


Controversy surrounds MTN’s acquisitions in Iran, as the company repatriates $1 billion trapped in the country during U.S-led sanctions. Specifically, MTN’s Turkish competitor - Turkcell - filed a 60 page complaint in 2012 as part of a civil suit in a U.S court claiming that MTN had muscled Turkcell out of the competition for the aforementioned 49 percent stake of IranCell. Turkcell claimed that MTN bribed Iranian officials, and shared details about vehicles, military equipment and UN votes which South Africa would provide Iran if MTN won the bid.

The case was withdrawn in 2012 after the U.S Supreme Court ruled that American courts could no longer try international corporate civil suites. Turkcell lodged the case with the High Court of Johannesburg in 2013, with the case finally going to trial in June 2017. Turkcell is claiming $4.2 billion in damages in potential lost revenue, citing that the 49 percent stake in Irancell was originally awarded to the Turkish firm in 2005.

2012 also saw the American advocacy group United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) launch a public campaign for MTN to scale back its operations in Iran. UANI claimed that MTN’s technology was allowing the Iranian government to locate and track individual cell phone users. To make matters worse for the company, Chris Kilowan a former MTN executive in Iran, alleged that MTN was complicit in securing telecommunications technology from Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard and Cisco Systems for the Iranian government, in contravention of international sanctions.

Pretoria one of Iran's staunchest defenders at the UN, IAEA

Turkcell’s reference to South Africa’s offer to ‘sell’ UN votes brings us neatly to another important facet of South Africa’s relationship with Iran; namely Pretoria’s support for Tehran at the international level. Alongside supporting Iran’s efforts to join the BRICS organization, South Africa has been a staunch supporter of Iran at the United Nations, describing unilateral, pre-Iran nuclear deal sanctions as “illegal and irrational.”

Greater South African support for Iran under the Zuma government has seen a deterioration of relations with Israel, as South Africa remains one of the few countries in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to actively oppose sanctions against Iran. Following the debacle surrounding the 2011 intervention in Libya, South Africa has vowed to oppose efforts at foreign intervention. For instance, South Africa’s ties with Iran and Russia saw it abstain on UN resolutions on Syria. Specifically, while South Africa supported a February 2012 proposal for a mediated solution to the Syrian conflict, it later abstained in July, claiming the measure was too one-sided in favour of the opposition.


Under President Zuma, South Africa-Iran have continued to deepen. | IRNA


Similarly, while South Africa voted in favour of UNSC Resolutions 1747 (March 2007) and 1803 (March 2008), regarding Iran, it only endorsed the former after the UNSC acknowledged that NPT signatories had the right to use nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.

Moreover, in return for its support of Resolution 1747, South Africa demanded a statement of support from the UNSC of the IAEA Board of Governors’ resolution (GOV/2006/14) which states that “a solution to the Iranian nuclear issue would contribute to [...] realizing the objective of a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction, including the means of delivery,” - an obvious reference to Israel.

The IAEA has been South Africa’s preferred vehicle for resolving the Iranian nuclear issue. Alongside the IAEA’s technical expertise, South Africa views the organization as a more just arbitrator given its more multilateral nature compared to the ‘northern’ dominated UNSC. South Africa has also accused the UNSC of mission creep, with arbitration of the Iranian nuclear issue falling outside its purview. In this context, South African support of Iran is in part due to a sense of solidarity among the nations of the Global South.

Alongside the UN and IAEA, South Africa also uses its considerable influence in the African Union (AU) to aid Iran. South Africa strongly lobbied the AU during its 2012 election process to ensure that Dr. Nkosazana Zuma was elected Chairperson of the African Union Commission, making her the most powerful pan-African politician and policy chief.

In the bilateral sphere, South Africa and Iran share a long historical relationship, with Iran having stood with and supported the struggle for liberation in South Africa. [We have] also stood with Iran in the face of unilaterally imposed sanctions
— President Jacob Zuma

Zuma was appointed at a time when the AU’s new governance and foreign policies were being devised, thus extending the reach of pro-Iranian sentiment in the AU. Such endeavours run the risk of undermining unity within the AU, as the body relies on bloc voting to amplify the otherwise weak voices of many African countries. Any excessive pro-Iranian bias will trigger backlash from the AU’s anti-Iran bloc headed by Egypt, Sudan and Nigeria.

Zuma was the architect of South Africa’s Iran policy, serving as foreign minister from 1999 to 2009. The ex-wife of President Jacob Zuma, she was favoured by Jacob Zuma to succeed him as both head of the ANC and as President of South Africa, prior to losing to Cyril Ramaphosa in December 2017. This loss came as her tenure at the AU was coming to end. Had she won and succeeded her ex-husband, South Africa’s Iran policy would have been even further entrenched. As things stand, it is unlikely that Pretoria’s relations with Iran will waver under a Ramaphosa presidency, although if the ANC’s political dynasty is finally toppled in the 2019 elections, greater uncertainty will follow.

The Bottom Line

From a place of exile to export partners, South Africa and Iran share a storied history. Ties between imperial Iran and Apartheid South Africa allowed Iran to acquire hundreds of tonnes of yellowcake in the 1970s. In return Iran became the primary source of oil for South Africa. The 1979 Islamic Revolution led to a break in ties between Tehran and Pretoria, even as Iran increasingly supported the organization that would eventually topple the Apartheid regime - the ANC.

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Since the election of Nelson Mandela in 1994, Iran and South Africa have moved closer, with the Rainbow Nation’s politicians and companies racking up a checkered legacy. By the turn of the 21st century, growing international concerns about Iran’s nuclear ambitions led to successive rounds of sanctions and other punitive measures. During the past two decades, South Africa has continued to work with the Iranian regime on a host of issues, while simultaneously finding itself in the middle of the Islamic Republic’s showdown with Washington and its allies.

South Africa’s advocacy for Iran has been most pronounced in various international fora, such as the UN, IAEA and AU. Driven by a desire to maintain its productive relationship with Iran, as well as a sense of Global South solidarity, South Africa has been a vocal opponent of the international sanctions regime. The consistency which characterizes South Africa’s Iran policy is in large part due to Iran’s historical ties with the ruling ANC. As the ANC’s reputation becomes increasingly tarnished under President Zuma, the 2019 election may see the end of the party’s political dynasty, with potential knock-on effects on South Africa’s Iran policy in the years to come.

Jeremy Luedi is the editor of True North Far East. His writing has been featured in Business Insider, Courrier International, The Japan Times, The Diplomat, and FACTA Magazine. His insights have also been quoted by TIME, OZY, Radio Free Europe and the Washington Times, among others.