Iran and South Africa: Close Relations and Renewed Interests with Regional Shades


Mon, 14-02-2022 05:47 PM, Aden

Nancy Zidan (South24) 

In a strange attitude by analysts, the South African-Iranian relationships have been rarely studied in spite of their strength and divergence which cast shadows on the regional surroundings especially the Yemeni arena. Those relationships are characterized by their historical dimensions despite the fluctuation of events and the diversity of the political tendencies. 

If we began the anatomy of these relationships, we will quickly discover the old friendships and the divergence of interests  from oil, nuclear power and big trade projects to diamond stones. [1] However, the Iranian cooperation with South Africa has not been limited to the mutual scope given the first's aspirations and the later's distinctive location and massive capabilities.

Over time, the relationships cast shadows over regional axes, especially the Yemeni arena with the convergence of multinational influence. South Africa is the huge gate southern the African continent where there are Iranian interests. 

This paper addresses many axes including the dimensions of the relationships between Iran and South Africa, how the Iranian regime formulates its interests by supporting its influence through the huge South African gate, South Africa's stance towards the humanitarian crisis in Yemen given its relation with Iran, South Africa's arms trade and weapons manufacturing and its related impact in fueling the internal Yemeni conflict and whether South Africa plays the role of double agent among the competing parties? 

Deep Rooted Trade Relationships

South Africa enjoyed good economic and political relationships with Iran in the era of the Shah. However, the new Iranian regime after the Islamic Revolution cut the relationship with the Apartheid South African regime after 1979 and supported its rival movement.

On the surface, South Africa and Iran suspended the mutual cooperation during the Apartheid era. However, the official story concealed the fact that the Islamic regime in Tehran has owned a share in the oil refinery "Mawroutha" since the Shah era. This means that Iran was legally obliged to sell oil to South Africa for the refinery. [2] 

In January 1984, Iran announced the end of trade and economic sanctions against the country and the diplomatic relationships were re-established in May 1994. [3]

 As the Apartheid regime in South Africa was skillful in producing the advanced military technology, and the Iranian regime  needed weapons during the Iraqi-Iranian War, the two states agreed in 1985 to exchange arms (South Africa to Iran) in return of oil (Iran to South Africa). They signed a deal worth 750 million $ in 1995. By the collapse of the Apartheid regime, South Africa was importing 65-90% of its oil needs from Iran. [4]

Nevertheless, in 2012, the US and EU sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran forced South Africa to find an alternative source for the Iranian oil which represented 27% of its imports. 

Thus, South Africa turned to the KSA for oil supplies and continued searching for alternative suppliers in Africa. In 2013, 60% of South Africa's oil came from the KSA and Iran while 40% were from African sources.

In addition to oil, Sasol (South Africa’s giant energy and chemical company) owns 50% in Aria Sasol which is a joint project with the National Iranian Petrochemical Company, located in Pars Special Economic Zone for Energy in Bushehr whose value is about 900 million $ [5]. 

This matter is related to one of the most important deals between the two countries which is related to building Sasolburg Oil Refinery and selling oil on the long run. The refinery was built 40 kilometers away from Johannesburg in cooperation with the French company "Total” and the South African "Sasol" with a daily energy production of 50000 barrels. The shares of the project's cooperative partners were determined as follow: 52.5% for Sasol, 30% for "Total", and 17.5% for the National Iranian Oil Company. 

Sasol has largely relied upon the Iranian oil and receives a daily 120000 Iranian oil barrels [6]. Moreover, the cooperation between the two countries has not been limited to the oil trade but it is extended to diversified economic and commercial fields. South Africa pays close attention to its relationship with Iran and welcomes the exerted efforts to expand the economic cooperation with it [7].

Therefore, trade remains part and parcel of this relationship as Iranian officials estimated the value of Iranian foreign investments in South Africa in 2018 by about 135 Billion$ [8].

Another important South African investor in Iran is the giant communication company (MTN) which owns 49% of the Iranian communication services [9]. Iran is the third biggest market for MTN which controls more than 45% of the communication market [10].

The contract with MTN in South Africa was in exchange for various technologies requested by Tehran. These requests include helicopter technology, supporting Iran's nuclear program and drone technology. These claims were confirmed through a lawsuit by a rival telecom company, Torcal. 

An agreement between MTN Group and Iranian partners in 2005 concluded that: “Cooperation between MTN and Iranian shareholders should be in the field of defense, security, and political cooperation. MTN will fully support cooperation in South Africa on the above mentioned issues” [11].

It is worth mentioning that MTN was one of the most prominent providers of communication services in Yemen until late last year under the Houthi control before it announced its withdrawal from Yemen on November 18th, 2021 [12] and transferred its share to a unit affiliated with the Yemeni Al Zubair Company. 
On Nov 22nd, the Omani international investment company, Al Zomorod, announced [13] acquiring more than 97% of the total shares of MTN in Yemen.

The nuclear program and the military support

Long ago, Iran expressed its interest in South Africa's nuclear experience. However, South Africa's leaders refused any cooperation with Iran's nuclear program [14]. South Africa only supported any Iranian peaceful program.

South Africa repeatedly refused using coercion tools against Iran when discussing the Iranian nuclear program in the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency. 

The South African support for Iran continued to the extent that the British magazine “Economist” described South Africa in 2010 as being "one of Iran's most ardent supporters in the United Nations”. [15]

Moreover, South Africa was the cornerstone of Iran’s “southern” strategy which aims at enhancing the relationships with the African and South American states. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad supported the “South and South Strategy” to boost Iran’s international credibility and its international trade. Iran sought to benefit from its close relationships with South Africa as an important military defense partner to back Tehran's naval expansion outside the Middle East by carrying out naval operations in South Africa according to a US Intelligence Agency’s report. 

Iran and South Africa also signed basic military cooperation agreements with the purpose of “developing defense cooperation that would achieve long-term strategic engagement. 

Deepening defense relations with South Africa is important for assessing Iran’s military strength, and assessing its political conditions despite the economic hardships and internal turmoil” [16].

On December 13th 2017, Iran and South Africa signed a Memorandum of Understanding on defense cooperation during the visit of Iranian Defense Minister Brigadier General Hossein Dehghan to the South African capital (Pretoria). The visit, which lasted for two days, was the first by Iranian Defense Minister since the “Islamic Revolution” in 1979.

The Memorandum of Understanding included cooperation in the field of maritime security and the exchange of experiences in combating organized crime. 

Speaking to reporters after the signing, the ministers said the two countries agreed to make efforts to promote regional and international peace, stability and security and to participate in a resolute and comprehensive campaign against terrorism.

The Memorandum of Understanding  came after two ships  affiliated with Iranian Navy, IRIS Alavand and IRIS Boushehr, docked in Durban on Nov 15th 2017 after making a transit in Tanzania following an anti piracy mission off the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Aden. 

This was preceded by a visit by the Commander of the Iranian Navy, Admiral Habibollah Sayyari in mid-September of the same year to South Africa to expand defense and naval relations between the two countries.

In April 2016, the two countries signed eight agreements on cooperation in the fields of trade, agriculture, oil resources and other fields during an official visit to Tehran by South African President Jacob Zuma [17].

In November 2016, Iran announced that a naval convoy, consisting of the the frigate Alvand and the logistic ship  Bushehr,  made a tour around  the African continent and entered the Atlantic Ocean for the first time after logistical procedures in a South African port [18].

The close relationships between the two states reached the extent that US intelligence reports revealed that Iran considered the idea of assassinating the US Ambassador in South Africa Lana Marx to retaliate the death of Quds Force Commander, Qassem Soleimani, in 2020 according to the American magazine “Politico” [19].

South Africa’s weapons in Yemen

Despite the outdated Iran’s Air Forces and its dilapidated  arsenal which consists only from old American planes date back to the Shah era, and some Soviet-made jet fighters from the 1990s [20], it enjoys an advanced position of military power as the third in the Middle East and the 14th in the world [21] according to Global Fire Power’s rank. 

Iran filled the gap of its airstrike by relying upon “drones “with South African technologies. Currently, Iran has an arsenal of drones divided into two types, the first one can be loaded with missiles and bombs while the second type is for one time use to destroy the targets. 

Drones are secretly moved to the Houthis in Yemen who used them for the first time in an attack that targeted Saudi Arabia's Buqayq and Khurais oil region in (2019). 

Prior to that, the Houthis targeted Al-Anad Base in South Yemen using a drone. On July 2021, the Houthis launched an explosive-loaded drones towards an oil tanker in the Arabian Sea [22].

A report, issued by “National Interest” in March 2020 said that the latest version of Iran's Ababil-3, believed to be a copy of the Houthis' Qasef-1, is very similar to South Africa's Denel Seekers program - which can be either a reverse engineered version or a simple re-issue [23].

The South African impact has not been limited to supporting Iran and its Houthi arm in Yemen, but it went beyond that by adopting a pragmatic policy to serve its own interests. Since the outbreak of the bitter regional war in Yemen which led to a hopeless humanitarian crisis, South African arms companies, including Rheinmetall Denel Munition (RDM), have benefited a lot from the sale of arms to the central competing conflict. 

South Africa sold weapons worth (11 billion rand) to Saudi Arabia and the UAE during between 2010 and 2019. There have been accusations against the two countries of moving the weapons to Yemen, which contributed to fueling the conflict there. 

Furthermore, they are among the biggest importers of South African ammunition since (2014). In 2015 and 2016, approvals for exports to these two countries increased and constituted more than (40%) of all approved arms exports from South Africa [24].

In South Africa, the National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC) was established which included several ministers and deputy ministers who were directly appointed by the president to particularly check the destinations of selling weapons. 

However, it failed to achieve the purpose for which it was established or to abide by its legal duties. It also didn’t make proper investigations regarding weapons exports. This makes South Africa look as a double agent among the main parties of the war in Yemen [25].

It seems that the Iranian-South African relationships could witness more expansion in the coming periods, especially with an expected visit by Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi to South Africa this year and the assertions made by officials from the two states about the growing cooperation in the international and regional fields. 

Researcher in political science and media analysis 
Photo: A meeting between former South Africa president (2018) Jacob Zuma and Iran supreme leader Ali Khamenei (Official)

[1] Michal Onderco , A battle of principles: South Africa's relations with Iran, Commonwealth & Comparative Politics, 2016,Vol. 54, No. 2, p.252
[2] Idem, p. 256.
[3] defenceWeb , South Africa and Iran cement defense ties, 10th Jan 2017
[4] Michael Onderco, Op.cite, p. 256.
[5] Idem, p.260-261.
[6] Ahmad Bakhshi, Iran - South Africa Relations: Past Trends, Future Prospects, Archive of SID, Iranian Review of Foreign Affairs, Vol. 5, No. 2, Summer 2014, p93-101.
[7] South Africa Says Will Stand by Iran in Sanctions Era, financialtribune, March 09, 2019
[8] John Campbell, Shedding Light on the Iran-South Africa Relationship, December 17, 2019,
[9] defenseWeb, Op.cite.
[10] Michal Onderco, Op.cite, p. 261
[11] Iran’s Ababil 3 Drone Might Be a Bribe from a South African Telecom Company | The National Interest
[12] South African telecom group MTN exits Yemen | Corporate News | CNBC Arabia(
[13] An Omani company acquires more than 97 percent of the shares of MTN Yemen Telecom - Alsharea newspaper (
[14] Idem, p.257.
[15] Idem, p257-258.
[16] John Campbell, Op.cite.
[17] defenseWeb, Op.cite
[18] Banafsheh Keynoush, Revolutionary Iran’s Africa Policy, kfcris, June 2021, p16,
[19] Real Danger or Intrigue? a report on an Iranian plot to assassinate an American Ambassador to Africa, September 14, 2020
[20] Iranian Drones.. The danger coming from the sky and the industry that threatens the Arabs, so what is their story?!, R Jan 26, 2022, Maat Group
[21] Iran’s Ababil 3 Drone Might Be a Bribe from a South African Telecom Company | The National Interest
[22] 2022 Iran Military Strength
[23] Iranian Drones... The danger coming from the sky and the industry that threatens the Arabs, so what is their story? A reference previously mentioned.
[24] Chris Jones, International Day of Democracy: SA's arms exports fuel Yemen's humanitarian crisis, 09/15/2021
[25] Marianne Thamm, Exposed: South Africa’s role in Yemeni civil conflict’s humanitarian crisis, dailymaverick, 3Mars2021
[26] Iran, South Africa agree on developing int'l, regional cooperation - IRNA English

South AfricaJacob ZumaKhameneiIranNuclearAgreementYemenWarConflictSouth Yemen