from Africa in Transition

Iran, South Africa and the U.S.

April 3, 2012

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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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.

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