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SA courting Iran despite human rights abuses

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The South African government is cosying up to Iran, acknowledged as one of the world’s worst human rights abusers.
by NICOLA MILTZ | Jun 21, 2018

A high ranking Iranian delegation spent two days in Pretoria last week, meeting with President Cyril Ramaphosa and Minister of International Affairs and Co-operation Lindiwe Sisulu, among others. The visit went virtually unreported in local media.

While the South African government has taken a strong line against Israel for its human rights record, it is meeting to improve relations with Iran. In November last year, the United Nations Third Committee on Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Affairs approved a resolution criticising Iran for extraordinary human rights abuses.

The recent talks between South Africa and Iran follows US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal Iran signed with world powers in 2015. Trump said he would impose “the highest level of economic sanctions” on Iran. He threatened that countries or companies that continued to invest in or do business there could risk violating US sanctions, with vast political and economic repercussions.

The SA-Iran meeting agenda included discussions on the JCPOA and improving existing trade ties.

On 13 June, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif posted a picture of himself with a smiling President Cyril Ramaphosa, and tweeted: “Delighted to be back in South Africa, long-time friend & partner of #Iran and solid JCPOA supporter. Excellent talks w/ Min @LindiweSisuluSA & other ministers & w/ Pres @CyrilRamaphosa to forge closer co-operation. Agreed on a joint mechanism to turn political will into action.”

Sisulu retweeted Zarif’s tweet that day, but that was her only public acknowledgement of the meeting.

Zarif told Iranian media he had held “excellent” talks, with senior South African officials in a major bid to forge closer co-operation and bilateral trade relations.

Iran – which is involved in major conflicts throughout the Middle East – has a history of deplorable human rights abuses. It has steadfastly threatened to wipe Israel off the map. Iran is a known supporter of internationally recognised terror organisations Hezbollah and Hamas, which it funds to the tune of millions. This is the country the South African government considers its friend and ally.

Political commentators say the ANC remains loyal to Iran for its historical support of the South African liberation movements during apartheid. Iran severed official relations with South Africa in 1979, and imposed a trade boycott in protest against the country’s apartheid policies. In 1994, Iran lifted all trade and economic sanctions against South Africa, re-establishing diplomatic relations.

Interestingly, this cosy relationship between the two states is not without its share of darkness. Like Israel, prior to the re-establishment of ties with South Africa in 1994, Iran had several dealings with the National Party government. The apartheid regime had solid relations with Iran under the Shah. These were severed by Tehran after the 1979 Revolution. The South African government, however, does not seem to hold this against Iran like it does with Israel.

Steven Gruzd, an analyst at the South African Institute of International Affairs, said the ANC’s ties with Iran went back decades to the struggle.

“History has shown the party has tremendous loyalty to its friends, and doesn’t ask too many questions about their internal affairs, especially when it comes to human rights.”

He said Iran and Israel were both courting African states in a “giant strategic chess game on the continent”.

“SA is seeking to punish Israel for what it sees as wrecking the peace process with the Palestinians, as we saw with the recall of Ambassador Sisa Ngombane after the Gaza clashes in May. It plays down its not inconsiderable trade with Israel, which quietly chugs along. Even in forums like the United Nations Human Rights Council, South Africa avoids criticism of human rights issues in other countries, especially amongst its friends, citing sovereignty issues. This is perhaps ironic – apartheid was mostly an internal policy, and the ANC spearheaded international condemnation of it.”

He said South Africa painted Israel as having the most egregious human rights record, but other states, including Iran, had worse records.

“One’s enemies always abuse rights; one’s friends never do. All the evidence shows that SA is much tougher on Israel. The Palestinian struggle is refracted through the lens of its own experiences, and ideology clouds that vision.”

The JCPOA nuclear deal was struck in 2015 between Iran and Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the US, then led by Barak Obama.

Under the pact, sanctions were eased in return for a commitment not to pursue a nuclear bomb. Trump consistently complained about the agreement, citing perceived flaws, including “sunset” provisions lifting some nuclear restrictions from 2025.

Iran has said it will not renegotiate the nuclear agreement.

Iran’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad via the Lebanese armed group Hezbollah in Syria’s civil war, and its backing for Shiite Huthi rebels in Yemen, have added to the friction between Tehran and Western powers.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has warned that the US will regret pulling out of the nuclear deal “like never before”.

He reiterated his country’s opposition to curtailing its non-nuclear missile capabilities, saying “Tehran will build as many missiles and weapons as needed” for its defence.

According to the Human Rights World Report 2018, executions, especially for drug-related offenses, continue at a high rate in Iran. Authorities in the security apparatus and Iran’s judiciary continue to target journalists, online media activists, and human-rights defenders in an “ongoing crackdown, in blatant disregard of international and domestic legal standards”.

Iranian law considers acts such as “insulting the prophet”, same-sex relations, adultery, and certain non-violent drug-related offenses, as crimes punishable by death.

The report said Iranian courts, particularly revolutionary courts, regularly fell short of providing fair trials, and used confessions obtained under torture as evidence in court.

Scores of human rights defenders and political activists remain behind bars.

Iranian women continue to face discrimination, according to the report.

A married woman may not obtain a passport or travel outside the country without the written permission of her husband. Under the civil code, a husband is accorded the right to choose the place of living, and can prevent his wife from having certain occupations if he deems them against “family values”. Women are marginalised in the economy, constituting only 16% of the workforce. Authorities prevent girls and women from attending certain sporting events, including men’s soccer.

According to the 2017/2018 Amnesty International Report, acts of violence against women and girls, including domestic violence and early and forced marriage, are widespread in Iran and committed with impunity.

Authorities have failed to criminalise gender-based violence, according to the report. The legal age of marriage for girls remains 13, and fathers and grandfathers can obtain permission from courts for their daughters to be married at an even younger age.

The report further identifies the fact that police and paramilitary forces harass and detain women for showing strands of hair under their headscarves (hijab), the wearing of which is compulsory.

Dirco could not be reached for comment on last week’s talks with Iran.

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