President Jacob Zuma and President Rouhani observing the signing of Memorandum of Understandings at Saab Abad during his state visit to the Islamic Republic of Iran. 24/04/2016 Kopano Tlape GCIS

Presdent Zuma’s tête-à-tête with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei is of particular significance, says Shannon Ebrahim.

Johannesburg - The image of President Jacob Zuma in a tête-à-tête with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei in Tehran earlier this week is of particular significance, more than is perhaps realised. The ayatollah rarely meets foreign heads of state despite the fact that the ultimate decision-making authority on foreign policy rests with him.

What the invitation to meet Zuma indicates is that Iran is seeking a much more strategic partnership with South Africa, and the Brics countries more broadly.

“The South is what really matters.”

That is what Iran’s influential leading academic on global affairs, Dr Mahomed Marandi, told me on the margins of President Zuma’s state visit to Iran. Sitting in his office on the campus of the Tehran University, he alluded to the preference of Iran’s leadership of a pivot away from the West in the post-sanctions era.

What amazed me the most was just how much Iran’s intellectual elite admire and would like to forge stronger ties with the Brics countries.

The feeling is so strong that one wonders whether Iran could one day become the double ‘i’ in an expanded Briics.

Iran believes it has found an ideological home with like-minded Brics countries and is seeking a strategic alliance with the group as distrust of the US mounts despite the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions.

Given the convergence of interests between Iran and other emerging economies of the South, Iran’s desire to get closer to the Brics countries could be in South Africa’s interest too.

Not only does South Africa want to ramp up the coalition of countries that seeks to change the Western dominance of the global financial and peace and security architecture, it wants to reduce reliance on the West for both exports and finance. Hence the creation of the Brics New Development Bank, which Iran has showed a particular interest in joining for similar reasons.

Iran’s leaders are intent on forging closer relations with countries that are ideologically distinct from Western powers. They are explicitly pursuing economic relations with China, Russia, India and potentially, South Africa. Given the extensive and lucrative business networks of the government, this presents an opportunity for emerging economies to consolidate ties with Iran’s revolutionary elite.

Iran’s growing interest in Brics countries has been reciprocal, as each member of the Brics alliance has taken meaningful steps to strengthen bilateral ties with Iran. As a group, Brics has taken a consistently supportive position on Iran, even throughout the sanctions debacle. Brics backed Iran’s inalienable right to develop nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.

Iran’s deputy economic minister recently said that Iran joining the New Development Bank would help the expansion of its economic relations, even with Brazil. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif referred to Brazil as “having always been among the priorities of Iran’s foreign policy”. Brazil has actively shown its solidarity with Iran, saying it is prepared to waive the US dollar to bolster trade with Iran and would accept euros as payment for planes, cars and machinery. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is due to visit Iran this year to bolster exports in the hope of tripling trade between the two countries to $5 billion (R72bn) by 2019.

Khamenei also views a strategic partnership with Russia as a priority, and Iran’s Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani has spoken of Iran’s “eastern orientation, first towards Russia as the country’s strategic choice”. When President Vladimir Putin went to Iran in November, his first visit to Iran in nearly a decade, he went straight to meet Khamenei. Both countries were seeking to cement their newfound partnership in Syria.

Iran’s relations with China have been strong throughout the sanctions period. Not only does China source 12 percent of its crude oil from Iran, but it increased its energy imports from Iran over the sanctions period. One of China’s strategic priorities is the consolidation of the Silk Road Economic Belt and for this it needs Iran’s collaboration as the belt will traverse northern Iran to Venice.

Iran’s relations with India are also strong, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi will travel to Iran next month to boost co-operation in energy and infrastructure development.

Iran’s forging of closer ties with Brics comes at a time when there is growing mistrust of the US. Last week the US Supreme Court ordered the transfer of nearly $2bn in frozen Iranian assets to American victims of terrorist attacks, including the 1983 truck bombing of a marine corps barracks in Beirut.

Iran denies responsibility for the attack, and claims the Supreme Court ruling is against international law, and a case of international robbery given that the assets belong to the Central Bank of Iran.

Iran’s current political establishment blames the previous Iranian administration for making the strategic error of buying US bonds and making investments in dollars. From now on, its focus will be on southern emerging economies.

* Shannon Ebrahim is the foreign editor of Independent Media.

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