The U.S. Needs to Pressure South Africa over Iran Links

South Africa’s Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Naledi Pandor, is visiting Washington, D.C. this week. In recent years, Pretoria has increasingly embraced American adversaries and provided them with a dangerous platform and political backing to undermine U.S. interests. Its foreign policy features partnerships with a rogues’ gallery of the worst actors in the international system, especially the Islamic Republic of Iran. In conversations with Pandor, U.S. policymakers should make clear that it will not be business as usual with South Africa if it does not distance itself from Tehran and its proxies and partners.

For decades, South Africa has held warm relations with Iran. Nelson Mandela visited the Islamic Republic before he even became president. As later recounted by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Mandela asked him how the Islamic Revolution successfully overthrew the Pahlavi monarchy. Khamenei even appeared to take credit for South African street protests as he bragged that they started after Mandela’s visit to Iran.

Mandela was also captured on video, which was later spread widely by the Islamic Republic’s propagandists, as referring to Khamenei as “my leader.” Both men likely bonded over their shared experiences in prison before rising to political offices, and in the common framing of their struggles as against oppression.

Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi has been seeking to strengthen Tehran’s relations in Africa. In July 2023, Raisi visited Africa—marking the first such tour by an Iranian president to the continent in 11 years. A month later, he traveled to South Africa for the BRICS Summit and in February 2024 he was supposed to visit again but it was postponed for undisclosed reasons. This flurry of activity marks an uptick in Iranian ambitions in Africa. The last official visit by an Iranian president to South Africa took place in 1998.

Nevertheless, the Islamic Republic has quietly built networks in the country over the years. Al Mustafa University in Iran has had a branch office in South Africa. The U.S. government sanctioned Al Mustafa University under counterterrorism authorities in 2020, highlighting how the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force has used the school “to develop student exchanges with foreign universities for the purposes of indoctrinating and recruiting foreign sources.” The president of Al Mustafa University recently met with an academic from South Africa seeking to expand its partnerships there.

Similarly, the Ahl Al-Bayt Foundation of South Africa is affiliated with Iran’s Ahl Al-Bayt World Assembly, which has counted personalities affiliated with internationally-sanctioned foreign terrorist organizations like Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah as members of its Supreme Council. Its vice chairman is Ghorbanali Dorri-Najafabadi, Iran’s former intelligence minister. Through these partnerships, the Islamic Republic penetrates South Africa, engages in ideological expansion, and provides a platform for potential recruitment by militant groups.

In fact, other countries like Canada have audited branches of the Ahl Al-Bayt World Assembly, leading Canada’s Revenue Agency to revoke the Islamic Shia Assembly of Canada’s charity status in 2019. Authorities alleged that it was founded “to facilitate the spread of the Iranian revolutionary ideology in Canada.” South African authorities should similarly scrutinize these connections.

South Africa has also been used as a fundraising platform for U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations linked to the Islamic Republic. In April 2023, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned a network linked to Nazem Said Ahmad, a Hezbollah financier, whose son ran his father’s business portfolio in South Africa, which invested in diamond interests. In 2003, the U.S. government sanctioned the Al-Aqsa Foundation, which had a branch office in South Africa, charging that the entity “funnels money collected for charitable purposes to Hamas terrorists.” In 2012, Washington applied counterterrorism sanctions on the Al-Quds Foundation. Yet as recent reporting revealed, Al-Quds Foundation SA is registered in South Africa and has used South African banks for its finances.

South Africa’s MTN Group also remains invested in Iran. This is despite U.S. comprehensive sanctions and a U.S. lawsuit accusing MTN of engaging with the IRGC and resourcing terrorism throughout the Middle East.

A decade ago, a leaked South African intelligence document concluded, “Iran’s current involvement in the continent is not enduring or solid as generally accepted but that Africa is rather low on Iran’s list of priorities.” Fast forward to 2024, Iran’s foreign policy has reprioritized Africa. This is especially true given the pace of engagements of the Raisi administration, which has increasingly resurrected the focus on Africa that the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had.

South Africa is a part of that calculus, especially given its pro-Palestinian inclinations. Iran’s network—ideologically and financially—should trigger the U.S. government to pressure Pretoria to crack down on these links, including by leveraging South Africa’s participation in the U.S. African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which provides it with trade benefits.

Jason M. Brodsky is the policy director of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute’s Iran Program. He is on Twitter @JasonMBrodsky.