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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Pretoria and U.S. Clash on Arms Sale

CAPE TOWN -- South Africa and the United States clashed on Tuesday over a proposed sale of South African arms to Syria, and an aide to President Nelson Mandela accused the superpower of high-handed bullying.

The row over the 3 billion rand ($641 million) tank-fire control system contract, yet to be concluded, was the worst in a series of disagreements between Washington and Pretoria over South African arms sales and foreign policy.

The U.S. Department of State said Monday "it would be extremely serious" if the sale went ahead, and threatened to cut off aid to South Africa.

"We detest this kind of behavior," Mandela's spokesman Parks Mankahlana said. "We just don't like being shouted at ... We'd rather be spoken to differently, as equals, instead of [Washington] making public threats."

The South African cabinet is scheduled to decide on the Syrian sale, believed to involve upgrading the targeting ability of Soviet-built T-72 tanks, later this month.

But Mankahlana said: "The Americans are not going to guide us, they are not going to tell us what to do. ... We are a sovereign country."

Israel's ambassador, Victor Harel, said the proposed sale would be "destabilizing." Harel said he had been assured there was no change in relations but, if the deal went ahead, it would burden relations and damage the Middle East peace process.

Former president F.W. de Klerk's opposition National Party urged Mandela's government to veto the sale. "Mere common sense indicates that South Africa cannot afford to become gradually alienated from the only superpower in the world through short-sighted and poor decision-making," a statement said.

Since taking power in South Africa's first democratic election in April 1994, Mandela has invited Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi and Cuban President Fidel Castro to visit -- and his government is discussing renting oil storage facilities on South Africa's Atlantic coast to Iran.

Washington labels Libya, Syria, Iran, Iraq and North Korea sponsors of terrorism, and seeks to isolate them.

The row over the Syrian arms deal threatened to aggravate a longstanding irritant: the U.S. accusation that the previous apartheid government smuggled out U.S. military technology, which found its way into Iraq.

Washington has refused to lift an embargo on defense cooperation until the case is settled, although in recent months the U.S. military has been testing South African landmine clearing equipment.

The embargo has severely hindered South Africa's efforts to export its Rooivalk combat helicopter.

Richard Cornwell, a researcher at the independent Africa Institute think tank, said Syria's government was "not the most palatable," but added: "This seems to be a new imperial [U.S.] presidency. They've chucked their weight around over Libya, over Cuba, and over Iran."

Cornwell said Washington had an interest in hobbling South Africa's defense industry because it was a potential competitor: "The Americans have been interfering in our arms industry before... There's a lot of self-interest."

The row with the United States knocked South Africa's bond market, although prices recovered by the close. "It's not anything that would cause a bear market in itself, but it's a worry," said one fund manager in Cape Town