With the recent announcement that South Africa intends to sell Iran weaponry worth R1.5 billion, including the Umkhonto surface-to-air missile, the country may contend that it is time to change its foreign military sales policy towards the Persian Gulf region.

A Long Term Relationship

South Africa has long-standing military and economic ties to Iran, dating back to when the last Shah of Iran was in power, during which the relationship reached its zenith in the 1970s, when Iran supplied upwards of 90 percent of South Africa’s crude oil imports. In the same decade, Iran signed a $700 million contract to purchase yellowcake uranium from South Africa, bought a 17.5 percent stake in the Natref refinery and refitted at least two destroyers in Cape Town’s port. Following the Iranian revolution in 1979, however, relations cooled as Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime refused to supply the apartheid government with oil, provoking an energy crisis in South Africa that lasted into the early 1980s. Relations picked up again beginning in 2000, as Iran regained its status as one of South Africa’s largest trading partners, with bilateral trade surpassing $20 billion by 2012.

The tables turned once more when UN-mandated sanctions imposed on Iran in the wake of its nuclear program resulted in the country’s inability to export oil, forcing South Africa to turn to Saudi Arabia to fulfill its oil needs. During this period, South African arms sales to member nations of the Gulf Co-Operation Council (hereafter the GCC, composed of Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Oman) increased dramatically. Among the more notable deals were the sales of several hundred infantry mobile vehicles to the United Arab Emirates and several dozen armored personnel carriers to Saudi Arabia. Even more striking was the decision by Denel Dynamics, a subsidiary of  South Africa’s state-owned armaments company, to enter into a joint venture with a state-owned United Arab Emirates’ company (Tawazun Dynamics) for the production of precision guided munitions, a venture that injected much-needed cash into research and development for the South African company.

Unfortunately for GCC countries who perceive Iran as a regional threat, evidence suggests that South Africa has already taken steps, whether inadvertent or not, to position the country as its representative in the Persian Gulf. For instance, South Africa’s International Relations and Cooperation Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane condemned UN sanctions, calling them “unfairly and unjustly imposed to single out the Islamic Republic of Iran.”. Equally, it should not be forgotten that South Africa was one of the only nations to actively oppose sanctions on Iran in the Security Council in 2012, and its relations with Israel have been deteriorating during the presidency of Jacob Zuma. South Africa has also abstained from voting on certain United Nations Security Council resolutions on the civil war in Syria, possibly out of fear of compromising Iran’s position towards the Syrian regime.

South Africa’s posturing in the region did not go unnoticed when, as soon as major sanctions were lifted in January of 2016, Iran expressed its willingness to export 100,000 barrels of oil per day to South Africa, approximately 20 percent of its former total consumption. In an attempt to regain its foothold on the southern continent, Iran has made similar offers to other African nations. South African companies have also been offered reciprocal opportunities in Iran, including the development of mobile networks and participation in the country’s petrochemical industry.

Difficult Decisions

As a result of the most recent sale of its weaponry to Iran, the time is approaching for South Africa to make a difficult choice. Despite a good track record of sales to GCC nations, it now appears likely that South Africa will be unable to secure large sales to the Arab monarchies who, in turn, will not appreciate further arms sales to Iran. In the coming months or years a drop in foreign military sales to GCC nations is likely to be accompanied by a downscaling of joint ventures amongst this group.

However, does the decision to sell weaponry to Iran end all South African sales to the Persian Gulf region? In examining historical precedent, one finds that South African military sales to the GCC are a relatively new phenomenon, whereas military ties with Iran go back far longer. The GCC generally purchase their largest and most sophisticated orders from Western nations who are in a better position to make sales in the region. The United States and the United Kingdom both enjoy a significant military presence in the area, while France and Italy have longstanding military and economic ties to North African countries. China and Russia have long sold arms to a host of nations who are not as friendly to Western powers, such as Iran, Pakistan and Syria. Furthermore, GCC nations generally seek deals that will include training and maintenance of the acquired weapon systems, a service that generally does not accompany South African weapons to their destination.

As a result, South Africa’s tilt to sell weaponry to Iran is perhaps prudent. Since Iran remains relatively isolated from Western powers, and China and Russia may not sell it conventional weaponry until 2020, South Africa enjoys a unique position. Moreover, Iran already has a robust domestic armaments industry, meaning it will be unlikely that South Africa will have to sink further valuable resources, such as technicians and researchers, into integrating or sustaining Iran’s military infrastructure. As a result, this deal allows South Africa to expend its limited resources pursuing arms sales to other Iranian allies in the region, namely Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Many of these states are eager to upgrade their ageing forces.

There are, of course, repercussions for this change in posture. Should Iran restart its nuclear program or Iraq be caught up in another civil war, both could be unable to export oil. Would the GCC nations be as generous in extending a lifeline of oil exports to South Africa again? Moreover, the move to arm Iran, who is still, in the eyes of many, a part of the so-called “Axis of Evil”, will draw criticism within and beyond South Africa’s borders. Nonetheless, if South Africa’s strategy of realpolitik plays off it could yet develop a significant export market, albeit one restricted to the other side of the Persian Gulf.