Mystery surrounds an alleged meeting early last year between Iran’s Deputy Minister of Atomic Affairs and the head of South Africa’s Atomic Energy Corporation (AEC).
The meeting took place at Pelindaba near Pretoria, where the Iranian, Reza Amrollahi, is alleged to have presented the chief of the AEC, Dr Waldo Stumpf, with a shopping list of items needed for making nuclear weapons.
The details of the meeting are disclosed in a report to be published by the Jane’s Information Group in London. The Mail & Guardian has obtained an advance copy.
Written by veteran correspondent Al J Venter, the report alleges that the meeting was arranged by the office of President Nelson Mandela. It says that Stumpf and the former minister of mineral and energy affairs, Pik Botha, who also attended, were stunned by the request and immediately rejected it.
“Stumpf told Amrollahi that in accordance with the provisions of the Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty, there was no way that either he or members of his staff could comply. He pointed out that South Africa had destroyed its own nuclear weapons arsenal,” the report says.
However, Mandela’s office said this week that it had no knowledge of the meeting.
Stumpf yesterday denied the meeting had ever taken place, but Botha confirmed the meeting, saying that only peaceful applications of nuclear technology had been discussed.
The meeting could provide further proof of the close relationship which has developed between Iran and South Africa – and which has angered the United States, as it has imposed sanctions against the Middle East pariah.
The report says: “Dr Waldo Stumpf was told at very short notice by the president’s office to prepare to meet the man who, he was informed, was already on his way. At that point, he was given only his designation.”
Venter says in the report that Stumpf told him in May that he had not wanted to meet Amrollahi on his own, which is why he had asked Botha to attend.
Asked why no deal had been struck, Botha said: “It was a sensitive issue at that stage. I wonder whether they perhaps wanted some uranium to be delivered to them. We would not have been able to consider that without the permission of … It was considered such a sensitive matter.”
Botha added: “It makes no sense that South Africa could have thought of sharing nuclear technology to enable any country to make a nuclear weapon. It makes no sense. We would never have thought about it and Iran would never have come to us. Truth is often stranger than fiction.
“I cannot see why this should always be regarded with suspicion. When I went to Iran I discussed the possible peaceful application of nuclear energy.”
But Venter’s report says that at the Pelindaba meeting, Amrollahi handed Stumpf a file: “It contained a comprehensive list of items needed for manufacturing nuclear weapons. According to Stumpf, there were some very advanced things asked for; blueprints, industrial, chemical and laboratory equipment and other essentials required for the production of weapons of mass destruction.”
The report states that “Teheran has made considerable progress in its quest towards developing nuclear weapons”, and that at least one of the South African technicians made redundant by the scrapping of the South African nuclear programme has been hired by Iran.
The deputy head of the AEC, Carel Fouche, said this week that he had no knowledge of the meeting. The Iranian visit would in any case have been fruitless, he said, as the AEC had stopped manufacturing weapons-grade enriched uranium in 1988.
Fouche added that there was nothing the AEC could have offered a country interested in manufacturing a nuclear bomb.
At a Pretoria banquet hosted by Mandela in his honour last year, then Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani said Iran and South Africa would not allow the US to determine their fate and destiny.
Mandela told the banquet: “It is heartening that relations between our two governments have made very good progress. Indeed we can boast of good working relations in a variety of fields.”
The US grew particularly upset by a deal mooted in 1995 to store Iranian crude oil at the massive storage tanks in Saldanha Bay, built during the years of the oil boycott against South Africa.
According to sources in London’s oil markets, the deal, which was presented as a sure thing in September 1995, collapsed because of key differences over pricing.
The Strategic Fuel Fund maintained the deal had been frozen pending the outcome of an environmental impact study – until last month when it finally admitted the deal had fallen through.
Botha and the head of the fund, Kobus van Zyl, this week ruled out any link between Iran’s failed visit to Pelindaba and the collapse of the Saldanha deal.
Larry Benjamin, an expert on the Middle East at the University of the Witwatersrand, said that Mandela and Rafsanjani – who has been replaced by President Mohammed Khatemi – have developed a close relationship.
He said that whereas the US has cut off all links with Iran, branding it as a terrorist state, countries of the European Union have adopted a more conciliatory stance and have sought more dialogue.
South Africa buys two-thirds of its annual oil intake from Iran but exports little in return.