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Old bedfellows.

IRAN HAS DECIDED to resume diplomatic relations with South Africa after the first multiracial elections are held there in April. It is also hoping to restore the lucrative trade links that existed between the two countries before the Islamic revolution 15 years ago.

During the Second World War, South Africa gave asylum to the Shah of Iran's father, and until the fall of the imperial regime in 1979 Iran was the major supplier of oil to South Africa. However, Pretoria was forced to develop other supply routes after the United Nations emposed an embargo aimed at ending the apartheid system.

Observers say Tehran may now be interested in regaining a share of the oil market in South Africa, although Foreign Ministry officials in Pretoria say that oil supplies will not be affected by decisions made in Tehran. South Africa currently imports two-thirds of its oil at a cost of over $1.5bn a year, accounting for 10% total imports.

The Iranian cabinet says its decision is in line with the expectations of South African Muslim groups and political organisations, and followed appeals by southern African front line states, as well as the African National Congress (ANC) President Nelson Mandela, who visited Iran in July 1992. Iran was satisfied that "the problem of racial discrimination has been solved in that country," a cabinet session concluded.

Last December, the English-language Tehran Times said the reasons for continuing sanctions against South Africa no longer applied. The paper normally reflects pragmatic opinion within the ruling hierarchy and advocated the restoration of ties. Two years ago a similar suggestion by a moderate majlis deputy, Said Rajai Korasani, that the time was ripe for re-establishing links with Pretoria provoked strong criticism from Islamic hardliners and the Iranian media.

According to South African sources, Tehran indicated its wish to restore relations some time ago through the Iranian interests section in the Swiss embassy in South Africa. They had been prevented from doing so by the UN embargo, before it was lifted last December. The ANC welcomed Iran's decision as the act of a "friendly country" which had provided valuable help to the ANC in its liberation struggle.

Iran's foreign minister, Ali Akhbar Velayati, has said Tehran will make immediate efforts to reactivate trade links with South Africa, and given priority to economic relations. Meanwhile, the Iranian Foreign Ministry's director-general for African affairs, Mohammad Mahdavi, told Tehran Radio's "World of Politics" programme: "What led us to decide to establish diplomatic ties with South Africa was, firstly, the recent events in South Africa, and, secondly, the direct request of the combative groups in that country, who wrote to us and asked us to lift the restrictions on trade.

However, he continued, "we have deferred the establishment of diplomatic ties, which will be the main basis of relations between our country and South Africa, until after the elections, when every black person has attained his rights there."

South African diplomatic sources in London say they have issued visas to Iranian businessmen in advance of the formal re-establishment of ties. The South Africans see the renewal of trade links with Iran as a logical next step after Pretoria's efforts during the last two years to claim a share of the lucrative Gulf markets and consolidate a commercial presence elsewhere in the Middle East, particularly in Egypt and Jordan.

Since the formal lifting of the international trade embargo, South Africa can now buy oil on the open market. Nevertheless, its refineries are particularly suited to processing high grade Iranian oil.

In 1970 the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) bought a 17.5% share in a South African refinery in Sasolburg, Orange Free State. Under a 20-year agreement, it supplied 70% of the refinery's crude oil until the 1979 severance of relations. But the NIOC maintained its shareholding despite the diplomatic break and suspension of oil supplies. Supplies of Iranian oil to the joint refinery are now expected to resume.

The South Africans are also eager to export raw wool to Iran, which was one of its biggest markets for wool before the revolution. Wool is South Africa's second largest overseas agricultural earner after maize, and the country is the world's fourth ranking wool exporter.

At the end of January the Tehran newspaper Abrar revealed that a high-level Iranian oil delegation had visited South Africa to discuss energy cooperation between the two countries. The delegation, led by the head of the Oil Ministry's international affairs section, Hojatollah Ghanimifard, met representatives of the ANC as well as South African economic and energy officials. Ghanimifard told the South Africans that Iran was ready to meet their oil needs and was interested in technical and trade cooperation in the energy sector.

A political observer in Tehran quoted by Agence France Presse commented on the decision to restore ties with South Africa: "It seems Iran is trying to diversify its relations and seek new economic and political partners." The move conteracts the trend of Iran's increasing international political isolation, and comes amid mounting economic difficulties caused by foreign debt, sharp falls in world oil prices and strained relations with several western countries
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Title Annotation:Current Affairs; restoration of political and economic relations between Iran and South Africa
Author:Feuilherade, Peter
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Mar 1, 1994
Previous Article:Army thrust into the front line.
Next Article:Drifting towards dissolution.

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