Washington D.C. – South Africa made an unexpected about-face last week when it retracted its support for Morocco’s 2026 World Cup bid. After it had declared officially in April that it would vote for Morocco on June 13, South Africa’s authorities walked back on their pledge and withdrew their support.
On Monday, South Arica’s Minister of Sports and Recreation, Tokozile Xasa, made clear why her country had decided to retract its initial support for Morocco. The South African official simply said that voting for Morocco would not serve her country’s agenda.
“Our parliament was very straightforward in this regard‚ it is the mandate of the country and it is an obligation for sporting bodies to understand what the country’s agenda is,” she said.
The timing of the decision suggests that it was made following American President Donald Trump’s tweet threatening to withdraw support for countries that do not support the United States’ 2026 bid.
Nevertheless, when one reads between the lines of South Africa’s Minister of Sports it appears that the decision goes beyond sports and beyond any fear of U.S. retaliation.
Strong economic and political ties between Iran and South Africa
South Africa’s geostrategic and economic interests appear to be the driving factor for the decision. An analysis of South Africa’s relations with Iran shows that its about-face regarding Morocco’s 2026 World Cup bid has nothing to do with Trump’s tweet. It has to do rather with Morocco’s decision to sever its ties with Iran and to escalate its rhetoric against Algeria and the Polisario. That South Africa has decided to retract its support just days after Morocco cut ties with Iran speaks volumes of the reasons underlying this decision.
South Africa and Iran have strengthened their relations since 1994 with the exchange of high-level visits between the two countries. At the political level, South Africa’s foreign policy towards Iran has been shaped and influenced by the African National Congress, the ruling party of South Africa. Since the apartheid era, the party’s political ideology found inspiration in Iran’s “revolutionary” regime and its anti-imperialist ideals.
As a result of the ideological affinity between the ANC and Iran’s ruling elite, South Africa has been among the few countries that lent political support to Iran during its protracted negotiations with world powers over its nuclear program. In addition, it supported Iran’s accession to the BRICS, the gathering of major emerging economies: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
The relations between the two countries were further cemented following Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohamed Javad Zarif’s visit to South Africa in October 2017. Iran’s chief diplomat headed a high-level delegation that participated in the 13th joint commission between the two countries, as well as the South Africa-Iran business forum. The visit’s aim was to encourage South Africa to resume banking relations with Iran to strengthen the economic and political ties between the two countries.
In addition to its affinity with Iran’s “revolutionary” ideals, South Africa’s foreign policy moves towards its Iranian ally were motivated by its heavy dependence on its oil exports. For many years before the imposition of sanction against Iran in 2012, the latter represented 27 percent of South Africa’s oil imports. And immediately after the signing of the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and the 5+1, South Africa announced its intention to sign trade and oil deals with Iran.
Increasing South Africa’s military exports to Iran is also among the goals pursued by South African leaders. South Africa is aware of Iran’s appetite to modernize and strengthen its military capabilities and seeks to carve in a spot for its military companies.
Iran’s open door to South Africa
Iran appears appreciative of South Africa’s support for it while it faced heavy economic sanctions from the United States and the European Union. Speaking at the 2017 business forum, the Iranian Foreign Minister lauded the political support that South Africa had provided to Iran throughout its negotiations on the nuclear deal with world powers. The Iranian official went further and pointed out that as a token of recognition from Iran to South Africa, South African companies will have free license to invest in Iran’s economy. “The doors of the Islamic Republic of Iran are open to South African state-run companies as well as the private sector,” he said.
South Africa has been among the first countries to benefit from easy access to Iran’s economy following the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear program on October 18, 2015. Less than five weeks after the signing of the deal, South African telecommunications company the MTN Group obtained 49 percent of stakes in Irancell, Iran’s second major cellphone company.
The South African conglomerate — which between 2011 and 2013 was headed by Cyril Ramaphosa, the current President of South Africa — controls 45 percent of Iran’s mobile market where it generates 24 percent of total revenue. As of 2016 Iran’s was MTN’s third major market after South Africa and Nigeria with a revenue that stood at $1.2 billion.
MTN’s positioning on the Iranian market seemed to be a reward to South Africa for its longstanding support for Iran and for denouncing the economic sanctions that crippled Iran’s economy for many years. During the 12th meeting of the South Africa-Iran joint commission held in Tehran on May 11, 2015, International Relations and Co-operation Minister Maite Nkoana, condemned the sanctions regime imposed on Iran and described it as “irrational and illegal.”
South Africa’s support for Iran’s nuclear program and its opposition to punitive measures by the West was not mere rhetoric. Prior to the referral of the Iran’s nuclear program to the Security Council in 2005, South Africa left no stone unturned to prevent the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Board of Governors from referring it to the Security Council. Between 2002 and September 2005, South Africa made use of its membership of the IAEA Board of Governors to urge the international community to prioritize dialogue with Iran and to avoid any attempts to punish it or isolate it. When the Iran nuclear program came under the purview of the Security Council while South Africa was member of the Security Council in 2006-2007 it reluctantly voted in favor of the resolutions aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear program.
When we put all these intricate economic, political and geopolitical interests linking Iran and South Africa in the balance, it appears abundantly clear that the reason that South Africa decided to retract its initial support for Morocco’s 2026 World Cup bid has a direct link to Rabat’s decision to sever its ties Tehran.
The claim that South Africa has succumbed to the American President’s pressure overlooks both this aspect of Pretoria’s ties with Tehran, as well as its past decisions to go against the U.S foreign policy in matters that are of utmost importance to the Washington foreign policy establishment.
If South Africa were to fear any American pressure, it would have done so when U.S. President Donald Trump threatened last December to withhold financial aid to countries that planned to vote in favor of the General Assembly resolution condemning his move to transfer the US embassy from Tel Avis to Jerusalem. Immediately after this statement, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikey Haley, sent a letter to 180 members out of the 193 members of the Security Council saying that she will be “taking names” of countries that planned to vote against her country.
Despite all the pressure the U.S. put on its partners throughout the world, it failed to deter them from voting in favor of the resolution. Among the countries that voted for the resolution was South Africa. Chief among all foreign and domestic policy issues on Trump agenda, the question of Israel undoubtedly is at the top. If Trump were to take retaliatory measures against countries that do not support the U.S., he would do so against those who condemned his move to transfer the US embassy to Jerusalem. This appears more plausible when one knows that Sheldon Adelson, the person behind Trump’s move, is his biggest donor and one of the biggest donors to the Republican party.
Based on these elements, there is not a shadow of doubt that South Africa’s decision to withdraw its support for Morocco 2026 signals a clear repositioning of Pretoria’s foreign policy in favor of its traditional allies, namely Iran, Algeria and the Polisario. Additionally, this repositioning herald the emergence of new geopolitical fault line in the Middle East and North Africa pitting Morocco and its traditional allies (U.S, France, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar) against an axis formed by Algeria, South Africa, Iran, and its proxy Hezbollah with the support of Russia.
Samir Bennis is the co-founder of Morocco World News. You can follow him on Twitter @SamirBennis