John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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Iran, South Africa and the U.S.

by John Campbell
April 3, 2012

An oil rig lights up Cape Town harbour as the sun sets, August 6, 2011. (Mike Hutchings/Courtesy Reuters) An oil rig lights up Cape Town harbour as the sun sets, August 6, 2011. (Mike Hutchings/Courtesy Reuters)

I am at present in South Africa talking to people about a book I am writing on where the country is going. Iran is right at the top of the South Africa international relations conversation. What I have been hearing underscores the extent to which South Africa and United States seem to talk past each other.

Iran has been a major supplier of crude oil for a long time, and at least one (maybe more) refinery is specially equipped for its refining. As I have blogged before, in response to international sanctions, South Africa is weaning itself off Iranian oil, and there are official statements that the country imported none last month. In consequence, it is widely expected that fuel prices in South Africa will soar.

U.S. sanctions, and the threat of their imposition on countries that do not reduce their import of Iranian oil, is bitterly resented by some of the South Africans with whom I have been talking, people who are not necessarily involved in foreign policy but who are domestically influential. Many–perhaps most– of them continue to believe Iranian protestations that Iran’s nuclear program is entirely for peaceful purposes. There is deep skepticism about Israeli rhetoric about an Iranian threat. (On the South African left and center-left, Israel is widely disliked, not least because of its Palestinian policies but also because of its alleged close ties with the previous Apartheid regime.) There is resentment that U.S. sanctions are an instrument for bullying small countries like South Africa, that the U.S. is yet again (Libya being a previous example) “disrespecting” South African sovereignty. And there is a suspicion that U.S. policy toward Iran is shaped by our coveting Iranian oil.

Yet, South Africa strongly supports nuclear non-proliferation. The country abandoned its nuclear weapons capability shortly before the transition to non-racial democracy in 1994. It would seem that the U.S. and South Africa should be natural allies on non-proliferation. But, many of my interlocutors do not want to talk about Iran, nor are they eager to talk about Pakistan or India (now a BRICS partner). Instead they want to talk about acceleration in U.S. (and Russian, French, British and–sometimes–Chinese) disarmament. At times, the sense of grievance over U.S. leadership on Iranian non-proliferation is hardly congruent with a country that seeks to be the leader of the African continent. And, perhaps we should reach out more to South Africans outside the foreign policy establishment on non-proliferation.

Post a Comment 6 Comments

  • Posted by John P. Causey, IV

    I’ll be looking out for the book! Any idea when it will be on the market?

  • Posted by Kir Komrik

    Thank you for this insider view.

    You wrote:
    “Iran has been a major supplier of crude oil for a long time, and at least one (maybe more) refinery is specially equipped for its refining. As I have blogged before, in response to international sanctions, South Africa is weaning itself off Iranian oil, and there are official statements that the country imported none last month. In consequence, it is widely expected that fuel prices in South Africa will soar.”

    This is a classic example of the adage that those that control the money control everything. U.S. commercial interests run deep enough around the globe that by simply denying businesses the ability to do business with U.S. companies the U.S. can strangle them, forcing them to agree to things such as a ban on the import of Iranian oil.

    My recommendation to USG is to drop the adventurism and wild capitalist speculation that presently drives U.S. foreign policy and use this advantage to compel other nations to ratify a global Constitution that will actually work and could actually be ratified, such as a General Federalist constitution. The political and economic weight the United States has right now is enormous and it is criminal that it is not being used for this purpose. If USG can get countries like South Africa to do just about whatever it wants, including punishing itself by denying Iranian oil and forcing fuel prices through the ceiling, then it can get South Africa to ratify a cleverly designed fundamental law.

    “U.S. sanctions, and the threat of their imposition on countries that do not reduce their import of Iranian oil, is bitterly resented by some of the South Africans with whom I have been talking, people who are not necessarily involved in foreign policy but who are domestically influential. Many–perhaps most– of them continue to believe Iranian protestations that Iran’s nuclear program is entirely for peaceful purposes. There is deep skepticism about Israeli rhetoric about an Iranian threat. (On the South African left and center-left, Israel is widely disliked, not least because of its Palestinian policies but also because of its alleged close ties with the previous Apartheid regime.) There is resentment that U.S. sanctions are an instrument for bullying small countries like South Africa, that the U.S. is yet again (Libya being a previous example) “disrespecting” South African sovereignty. And there is a suspicion that U.S. policy toward Iran is shaped by our coveting Iranian oil.”

    And all this just illustrates with how much force the U.S. economic hegemony pushes sovereign nations to the bidding of the United States. Regardless of how “unrealistic” one thinks a global constitution is, even a General Federalist one, this kind of influence leaves little doubt of the outcome if the political will to do it was there.

    - kk

  • Posted by Maduka

    “At times, the sense of grievance over U.S. leadership on Iranian non-proliferation is hardly congruent with a country that seeks to be the leader of the African continent. And, perhaps we should reach out more to South Africans outside the foreign policy establishment on non-proliferation.”

    Your comment assumes that US credibility (after Iraq and Afghanistan) is at an all time high or that Africans see Iran as an existential threat.

    South African leadership in Africa has more to do with its economic might, its strong institutions and its increasing relevance to other African economies. Issues such as the Dalai Lama, Gay rights and Iran may seem very important to Westerners, but they are a of very little relevance to most Africans.

    We watched the build up to Iraq with interest and we saw in real time, how a UN mandate to protect civilians was abused to overthrow a regime in Libya. We are also watching the impact of the fall of the Gaddafi regime on the Sahel regime.

    Right now we are watching the relentless buildup to another war in Iran and the Syrian crisis.

    Sorry, we find it impossible to believe that the US is telling the truth.

  • Posted by Gavin Bond

    “Yet, South Africa strongly supports nuclear non-proliferation. The country abandoned its nuclear weapons capability shortly before the transition to non-racial democracy in 1994. ”

    ******************

    They did this as a condition for the United States to support the sanctions against South Africa at the time! If the USA had not put its full backing on the struggle, it would have gone on longer! If you can remember very well, the USA supported Dr Savimba against the Cuba forces in Angola, where most of the attacks on S Africa by the freedom fighters were launched.

    One can not fail to admire or hate the brazen diplomacy of the USA! They ignored sanctions against South Africa during the Apartheid period and yet wants to tell others to support its stance against Iran now!

    I am sorry to say it but Afrikans are so timid! India has just told them where to get off and what to do about their sanctions while the Afrikan is sat there doing fuckkall!

    This is why Afrika will remain poor for ever and remain as a dumping ground for western products and toxic wastes! I can remember boycotting the South African imported Pilchards in the sixties but cannot find them to buy today! I feel so sad for the stupidity of Afrika’s black leaders who cannot see where the west is leading it!

  • Posted by Debbie Bouwer

    John, I am blogging on the same topic at the moment..
    The entire situation revolving around oil imports from Iran is hugely frustrating. Truths, half-truths, deceit and lies are interwoven in each story told by the petrochemical companies. On the political end, there are many undercurrents.
    I suspect that South Africa found some misplaced courage and are dragging their feet in respect of the sanctions due to the BRICS countries deciding not to necessarily cooperate. Don’t underestimate the China factor. South Africa has long been bending to the will of the the Chinese government. Think back at the times when the Dalai Lama had his visa applications rejected – the last application was denied directly after a SA delegation returned from a visit to China. Remember the Chinese weapons smuggled into Zimbabwe? The SA government was instrumental. There are many such examples. Good luck with your research!

  • Posted by Maduka

    Debbie,

    If I am correct, MTN of South Africa has significant investments in Iran.

    Secondly, the relationship between China and South Africa is mutually beneficial (a few years back, there was a massive investment by the Chinese in Stanbic bank).

    Is the growing clout of China in Africa a bad thing? Not necessarily, but that’s not the major point that is lost on the United States – an Africa that trades more with China than it does with the US will regard safeguarding Chinese interests as more important than safeguarding American assets.

    South Africa is merely the “canary in the coal mine”. This should be an opportunity for America to critically reassess the basis for its global reach and what impact the economic might of the Chinese, Indians and Brazilians could have on international relations.

    I as an individual, don’t see what the big fuss is about Iran having nuclear weapons or why economies around the World such as the South African or Indian economies should suffer simply because “Iran is going to get the bomb!”.

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