SA ramps up efforts to protect US ambassador
Durban - THE State Security Agency (SSA) has said that allegations of an “assassination plot” by Iran against the US ambassador to South Africa, Lana Marks, in retaliation for the assassination of Iranian military leader General Qassem Soleimani, is receiving the highest level of attention, including from the office of the president.
“The agency is interacting with all relevant partners both in the country and abroad, to ensure that no harm will be suffered by the US Ambassador, including any other diplomatic officials inside the borders of our country,” the agency said in a statement.
Due to the nature of the allegations, no further information would be made available, it added.
“Reports shall be provided to all the relevant authorities including the President of the Republic, the Minister of International Relations and Co-operation and relevant officials in the United States administration.”
Hawks spokesperson, Brigadier Hangwani Mulaudzi, told The Mercury: “We have taken note of the matter, and it is receiving attention.”
Spokesperson for the Iranian embassy in South Africa, Hamid Reza, said yesterday that the ambassador and embassy staff were “shocked” when they initially heard of the allegations.
The embassy has been implicated in the alleged plot.
Reza referred to a statement released by Iran’s foreign affairs spokesperson - Saeed Khatibzadeh - for further details on its position. He also confirmed by 3pm yesterday that the embassy was yet to be contacted by authorities regarding the allegations.
Spokesperson for the US embassy in Pretoria, Rob Mearkle, said the embassy would not be commenting. Marks is known to be a close friend of American President Donald Trump.
News of the plot was first reported by US-based news agency Politico early yesterday.
Politico cited unnamed US government officials saying they had seen intelligence reports identifying Marks as “one of several options” being considered by Iran in retaliation for the US government-sanctioned killing of Soleimani in January, via a drone strike.
According to the article, US officials believe the Iranian government runs clandestine networks in South Africa, and has had a “foothold” in the country for “decades”.
It reported that a US government official said there had been a “general threat” on Marks since “spring” in America, but that the threat “has become more specific in recent weeks”.
In his statement, Khatibzadeh called the accusations “custom-ordered, biased and purposeful”.
“We advise the American officials to stop resorting to hackneyed and worn-out methods for anti-Iran propaganda in the international arena,” said Khatibzadeh.
He said Iran was a “responsible member of the international community” and that the US had become a “rogue regime in the international arena” under Trump’s administration, and used the assassination of Soleimani as an example.
The accusers in the Politico report were part of a “counter-intelligence campaign against Iran”, he said.
“It was predictable that the United States regime would resort to anti-Iran accusations and falsification ahead of the US presidential election, coupled with that (US) regime’s pressures to abuse the United Nations Security Council’s mechanisms with the purpose of intensifying pressure on the people of Iran.”
He said Iran would still pursue “international legal action at all levels” with regards to the death of Soleimani and would “neither forgive nor forget the act of terrorism”.
Jasmine Opperman, an Africa analyst with the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, a data collection and crime-mapping platform, told The Mercury that the alleged plot had to be taken “very seriously” by the South African government.
Opperman is also a former employee of South Africa’s intelligence sector.
“I don’t even want to think of the implications if such a plot was successfully carried out in South Africa,” she said, adding it would be expected that South Africa and the US would be liaising about the threat to establish its veracity.
“We sit with an intelligence service in South Africa that has neglected liaison services with the West for some time [as a result of State Capture]. So what extent of co-operation there is between the two intelligence services remains, to my understanding, doubtful.”
Opperman said that differences in ideology between South Africa and the US could also hamper the investigation into the threat. The US views Iran as a foe that harbours and funds terrorist groups and is looking to build nuclear weapons, while South Africa enjoys close relations with Tehran. Both countries also harbour differing views on Palestine, which enjoys the support of South Africa.
“If we do not take this seriously, because of our friendship with Iran, we will not be adhering to our mandate,” she said. “The government has an obligation here not to take sides. The facts within the intelligence report [from the US] must be determined and analysed quickly.”