The US’s covert war with Iran is being fought across the globe, with countries such as South Africa dragged in despite being bystanders. The leaked spy cables offer a glimpse into US efforts – often undeclared and unreported – to tighten sanctions and hamper Iran’s nuclear progress, including blocking access to scarce mineral resources in Africa.
The world’s foremost superpower and its allies are trying to force Iran to reach a deal on its nuclear programme. The US, Britain and Israel say Tehran is seeking a nuclear weapons capability while the Islamic republic insists it wants to use nuclear energy solely for civilian purposes.
The leaked documents repeatedly stress that South Africa’s National Intelligence Agency (NIA) does not see Iran as a significant threat to the country. The papers state it has made no serious effort to export the Iranian revolution or stir up Shia Muslim groups in the country, and that it poses no other discernible danger.
Yet the NIA has devoted huge resources to monitoring Iran. One of the biggest dossiers in the spy cable cache is one drafted by the NIA, which is aimed exclusively at Iranian agents. It is called Operational Target Analysis and dated January 2010.
SA being squeezed by demands of western allies
According to an intelligence source with experience of South Africa, the country’s spy agency has responded to US pressure to focus on Iran. South Africa – formally neutral, and a prominent member of the Non-Aligned Movement – finds itself squeezed between wanting to maintain a normal relationship with Iran and the demands of the US and its allies.
The South African Iran dossier, marked secret, is 128 pages long and provides biographical details about every suspected Iranian agent in South Africa. It lists their age, marital status, address, car registration, mobile phones, visits in the country and overseas, people they meet, their career before arriving in South Africa and their personal habits.
Some of the suspected Iranian agents – estimated by US officials to number 30 000 worldwide, including support staff – work at the Iranian embassy in South Africa. The report notes that while South Africa’s diplomatic mission to Tehran is only five strong, the Iranian mission to Pretoria had grown to 17.
Other suspected agents are listed as journalists and members of the business community, with many alleged to use Persian carpet shops as fronts. “Private … sectors such as the Persian carpet trade are used to accommodate intelligence officers in its structures,” the report says.
One suspect, who “while under the influence of liquor acknowledged he was a member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards corps”, used “his carpet shop in [name redacted] as a meeting place with Iranian nationals, including personnel from the Iranian embassy”.
The lives of almost all staff at the Iranian embassy in Pretoria, from the ambassador down to the drivers and cleaners, were scrutinised in detail. South African intelligence described one junior diplomat as “somewhat shy, but warm[ing] quickly to a conversation about Iran and the history of the country. He is a warm and accommodating person”.
Africa ‘low priority’ for Iran
Operational Target Analysis acknowledges that Iranian spies are among the most disciplined and ideologically committed in the world, making their organisation difficult to infiltrate and agents hard to turn.
Despite the exhaustive detail, however, the report says: “Africa is not high on Iran’s list of foreign policy priorities.”
A more recent South African intelligence document, which minutes a meeting in the Gulf between senior NIA officials and their UAE counterparts in November 2014, is even more blunt. “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.”
It added: “Iranian influence in Africa is limited to areas where there are substantial Shia communities: Tanzania, Zanzibar, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Morocco, Senegal, Mauritania, Niger and Guinea.”
But South Africa is unlikely to ignore pressure from the CIA, the world’s most powerful intelligence agency, Britain’s MI6 or Israel’s Mossad. A major part of those agencies’ focus is on Iran’s hunt for alternative sources of uranium in Africa because its own stocks are of poor quality or almost depleted.
A Mossad document, dated 28 September 2010 and sent to South African intelligence, deals with a possible shipment to Iran of yellowcake, necessary for uranium refinement, by an Armenian broker. “We would like to inform you that we recently received information that [name redacted] informed his intermediary in Iran that on 19 September he was departing for Turkey where he would be preparing ‘the yellow goods’ – we assess this to be yellowcake – from the same country where Iran previously obtained 500 tons, which we assess is South Africa.”
Intelligence leaks about yellowcake shipments have an infamous history. In the runup to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, faked intelligence recycled by the US and Britain claimed that Saddam Hussein was seeking yellowcake from Niger to build a nuclear weapon.
This article first appeared on The Guardian.