SA in­vited to right side of his­tory

As it re-en­ters the global econ­omy, Iran is ea­ger to fos­ter re­la­tions with South Africa

Mail & Guardian - - News - Luke Feltham

Last Friday, United States Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump made good on his word and re­fused to cer­tify the Iran nu­clear deal. The de­ci­sion came as lit­tle sur­prise be­cause of Trump’s many dec­la­ra­tions that his pre­de­ces­sor had erred badly by con­clud­ing the deal and be­cause of his in­ces­sant goad­ing of the Is­lamic Re­pub­lic.

The “foul-mouthed pres­i­dent”, as Trump was de­scribed by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei this week, has adopted the coun­try as his pet peeve, vow­ing to re­visit what it can or can’t do — in be­tween threat­en­ing to bomb North Korea — on Twit­ter.

For­tu­nately for those who be­lieve he is be­ing ir­ra­tional, the de­clas­si­fi­ca­tion will have no im­me­di­ate ef­fect. In­stead, it is now up to Con­gress to de­cide the way for­ward. A de­ci­sion to reim­pose sanc­tions will es­sen­tially sig­nal the death of the deal of­fi­cially known as the Joint Com­pre­hen­sive Plan of Ac­tion.

Con­gress, in its de­lib­er­a­tions, must also con­sider the wishes of its al­lies. The Euro­pean Union sig­na­to­ries to the pact, in par­tic­u­lar, have been vo­cal that they do not wish to see it scrapped.

Mean­while, Iran has a keen in­ter­est in pro­ject­ing a pos­i­tive im­age to main­tain in­ter­na­tional sym­pa­thy. Tehran has re­peat­edly said it will hon­our the agree­ment as long as the US does. “Trump’s stu­pid­ity should not dis­tract us from Amer­ica’s de­ceit­ful­ness,” Khamenei said. “If the US tears up the deal, we will shred it.”

It was against this back­drop that six South African jour­nal­ists were in­vited to Tehran by the Ira­nian govern­ment.

“If the US doesn’t keep its promise, we have the right not to keep our promise,” Seyyed Farid Mousavi, an MP, told the group. “But Iran won’t be the first.”

This view was echoed through­out the visit, from the heads of ri­val me­dia to state em­ploy­ees. There is an al­most tan­gi­ble sense that both the na­tion’s peo­ple and law­mak­ers have no in­ter­est on reneg­ing on the 2015 pact signed un­der for­mer US pres­i­dent Barack Obama. The st­ing of sanc­tions is still keenly felt and Tehran is will­ing to abide by the re­stric­tions im­posed by the deal to avoid them be­ing im­ple­mented once again.

Mousavi has a spe­cial par­lia­men­tary role to play from a South African per­spec­tive — he’s the vice-pres­i­dent of the South Africa-Iran Friend­ship Group. His com­mis­sion was estab­lished to fa­cil­i­tate close re­la­tions with the Na­tional Assem­bly. Last year, speaker Baleka Mbete was in­vited to open this new level of co­op­er­a­tion. By all ac­counts the visit was a suc­cess, al­though ex­act de­tails are scarce.

The vi­sion for the friend­ship is mul­ti­p­il­lared, with the cen­tral pil­lar be­ing eco­nom­ics. Dur­ing the sanc­tions pe­riod, non-oil trade be­tween the two coun­tries was a mea­gre R358mil­lion in 2015. In ef­forts to boost that amount, Pres­i­dent Jacob Zuma vis­ited Iran in April last year for bi­lat­eral talks with Pres­i­dent Has­san Rouhani. They agreed it should reach R14.4-bil­lion by 2018.

To achieve that, Mousavi said Iran would ide­ally like to set up di­rect flight be­tween the two coun­tries, but South Africa had not shown re­gion the same in­ter­est, he said.

In­ci­den­tally, avi­a­tion has been di­rectly af­fected by the tur­moil sur­round­ing the Iran deal. Old jets were a ma­jor is­sue for the coun­try’s air­lines, with some re­port­edly still us­ing air­craft from the 1970s. Amer­i­can man­u­fac­turer Boe­ing was seem­ingly a ben­e­fi­ciary of lifted sanc­tions, agree­ing to a nearly R20­bil­lion contract for 80 planes. But even before Trump took of­fice, Repub­li­cans at­tempted to block the deal. Now, with the pact in the bal­ance, the agree­ment could once again be in jeop­ardy.

But dreams of eco­nomic co-op­er­a­tion is not why you fly a group of jour­nal­ists half­way across the world.

It has been 28 years since Francis Fukuyama first the­o­rised about “the end of his­tory” — the no­tion that the bat­tle for so­cio­cul­tural su­pe­ri­or­ity had ef­fec­tively come to an end with the con­clu­sion of the Cold War and West­ern lib­eral democ­racy would inevitably con­sume the en­tire world like a benev­o­lent plague.

Not only is this ar­gu­ment be­ing sorely tested but the con­cept of the “West” is stand­ing dan­ger­ously close to the edge of a precipice.

The or­ange hue of the Trump pres­i­dency is largely to blame for colour­ing the black-and-white view of Ira­nian for­eign pol­icy that much of the world had shares. Ar­guably, the EU and its se­nior mem­bers, namely Ger­many, France and the United King­dom, now see the US as more of a threat than Iran it­self.

North Korea is viewed as the undis­puted dan­ger to global se­cu­rity. Un­like Tehran, it does have nu­clear weapons that are con­trolled by an un­pre­dictable dic­ta­tor. The EU is des­per­ate to come to an agree­ment with Py­ongyang — one that would re­strict its nu­clear ca­pa­bil­i­ties and post­pone World War III for now. The prob­lem is, if the joint plan of ac­tion is scrapped af­ter only two years, the chances of Kim Jong-un agree­ing to some­thing sim­i­lar would be slim.

In this global de­ba­cle, Iran finds it­self on the right side of his­tory.

Its deputy min­is­ter for press and in­for­ma­tion in the min­istry of cul­ture and Is­lamic guid­ance, Hos­sein En­tezami, ex­pressed the na­tion’s pride in this lat­est de­vel­op­ment.

“One of Iran’s vic­tory’s is that, four years ago, the US could make the whole world reach a con­sen­sus against Iran. What is hap­pen­ing to­day, Iran could do the same thing against Trump,” he said.

Trav­el­ling around Tehran, it be­comes clear that the coun­try is ready to re-en­ter the glob­alised econ­omy fully. Al­le­giances to Hezbol­lah aside, much of the in­ter­na­tional con­dem­na­tion of Iran has come from its per­ceived dra­co­nian treat­ment of its cit­i­zens and pur­ported poor hu­man rights record. This is some­thing it has ev­i­dently set out to change, even if the tech­ni­cal law lags be­hind what com­mon prac­tice.

Many of those we spoke to ex­pressed con­fi­dence that the au­thor­i­ties wouldn’t bother crack­ing down on mi­nor of­fences such as drink­ing, tat­too­ing and even sex before mar­riage. As a re­sult, the youth in ma­jor met­ro­pol­i­tans like Tehran and Es­fa­han feel “free”.

Young Ira­ni­ans are also avid so­cial me­dia users. Just about every brand, from the news agen­cies to street vendors fran­chis­ing jew­ellery and an ice cream store on Tabiat Bridge, has an In­sta­gram ac­count — 21st-cen­tury com­mer­cial­ism at its finest.

Part of the photo app’s ubiq­uity is the re­stric­tion of other plat­forms such as Twit­ter and Face­book. But al­though com­pa­nies can’t use them, or­di­nary peo­ple flout the reg­u­la­tions with im­punity. A quick switch on the phone to en­able a cheap VPN and you have ac­cess to any net­work you like. Again, no one we spoke to (and added on Face­book) were afraid of any reper­cus­sions.

There seems to be an un­spo­ken un­der­stand­ing that, if Iran is to take its place on the right side of his­tory, it must al­low its peo­ple to join the global com­mu­nity.

So­cial me­dia has for­ever changed the face of any wars of ideals. As such, South Africa, still cel­e­brated for over­com­ing its own re­pres­sive regime, could be a key build­ing block in the Is­lamic Re­pub­lic’s house of global friend­ship. Tehran even has a bustling street named af­ter Madiba.

Its com­mit­ment to South AfricaIran har­mony is clearly ap­par­ent, even if we don’t fully un­der­stand its mo­tives.

A new world: Iran hopes to be able to dream anew and for its cit­i­zens, like those of a re­formed South Africa, to re­join the global com­mu­nity. Photo: Mu­jahid Safo­dien/Mid­dle East African News Agency

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