South Africa Table of Contents
In early 1994, after a fifteen-year break, the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs began preparing to reestablish formal ties by ending the oil embargo against South Africa. Iran had been South Africa's primary oil supplier until the fall of the shah in 1979, when open economic and political ties were suspended. Limited economic relations continued between the two countries, although at a discreet level. For example, the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) continued to maintain its 17.5 percent share in the Sasolburg refinery of the National Petroleum Refiners of South Africa, even after other ties between the two countries were suspended. In 1995 and 1996, South Africa pressed for closer ties to Iran, both to acquire oil imports on favorable terms and to demonstrate Pretoria's willingness and ability to defy United States pressures to shun Iran.
One of the most hidden but critical of South Africa's strategic relationships during the apartheid era was that with Israel, including both the Labor and the Likud governments. Israel officially opposed the apartheid system, but it also opposed broad international sanctions against Pretoria. For strategic reasons, much of the debate in Israeli government circles stressed coordinating ties to Pretoria within the framework of the tripartite relationship among Jerusalem, the United States (Israel's primary benefactor), and South Africa. Israel was also opposed to international embargoes in general, largely as a consequence of its own vulnerability to UN and other international sanctions.
South Africa and Israel had collaborated on military training, weapons development, and weapons production for years before broad sanctions were imposed in the late 1980s. Military cooperation continued despite the arms embargo and other trade restrictions imposed by the United States and much of Western Europe. Israel and several other countries discreetly traded with, and purchased enriched uranium from, South Africa throughout the 1980s. Romania's former president Nicolae Ceausescu, for example, used Israel as the "middleman" for exports to South Africa. In a few cases, joint ventures between Israel and South Africa helped to reduce the impact of sanctions on South African businesses.
The Israeli interest in South Africa sprang in part from the presence in South Africa of about 110,000 Jews, including at least 15,000 Israeli citizens. Israeli leaders sometimes justified trade with South Africa as support for the South African Jewish community, and South Africa provided a market for some of Israel's military exports. Israel's arms trade with South Africa was estimated at between US$400 million and US$800 million annually (see Arms Trade and the Defense Industry, ch. 5). In 1986 Israel also imported approximately US$181 million in goods, mainly coal, from South Africa, and exported to South Africa nonmilitary products worth about US$58.8 million.
In 1987 Israel took steps to reduce its military ties to South Africa to bring its policies in line with those of the United States and Western Europe. Then Minister of Foreign Affairs Shimon Peres announced the Israeli plan to ban new military sales contracts with South Africa, to reduce cultural and tourism ties, to appoint a committee to study sanctions proposals, and to condemn apartheid--which Peres characterized as "a policy totally rejected by all human beings." Israel also established educational programs in Israel for black South Africans. Nevertheless, through the early 1990s, several secret treaties remained in force, continuing the military relationship between the two countries and their joint research in missile development and nuclear technology.
Data as of May 1996