Protesters chant slogans and hold up posters of Gen. Qassem Soleimani during a demonstration in front of the British Embassy in Tehran. Picture: Ebrahim Noroozi/AP
Protesters chant slogans and hold up posters of Gen. Qassem Soleimani during a demonstration in front of the British Embassy in Tehran. Picture: Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

SA government may regret its neutral response to Iran crisis

By Reneva Fourie Time of article published Jan 13, 2020

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On January 3 the United States of America (US) launched a so-called ‘pre-emptive’ missile attack in Iraq, killing seven persons. Among the fatalities were the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, General Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi commander, Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, both of whom were highly revered for neutralising the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and bringing stability to the West Asian region. 

While acknowledging that President Ramaphosa did convey condolences and condemn the attack a week later, the South African government’s initial response was neutral; neither condemning the attack nor offering condolences to the mourning nations. The desperate effort to display our diplomatic prowess as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) for 2019 and 2020 became almost nonsensical given the reality that this global multi-lateral organ cannot regulate and admonish any aggression by the world’s superpowers. This naivety might back-fire should South Africa ever become a US target.

The UNSC was established to maintain global peace and security but it struggles to execute its mandate optimally. The dysfunctionality primarily emanates from its structure. Despite numerous debates regarding the need for the structure of the UNSC to be more democratic and representative, the dominance of its permanent members, namely the US, France, the United Kingdom, Russia and China, who have veto powers over any UNSC resolution, remains. This inequity impedes the effectiveness of the organisation, particularly in the event of one of those permanent members being a transgressor.

The January 3 killings were unlawful. The wilful, planned murders were not sanctioned by the US Congress, nor were they in line with the terms of Article 51 of the UN Charter. But little was done to hold the US to account. Later, the US denied Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif a visa to enter the country to attend the January 9, UN Security Council Meeting. In so doing, the US completely violated its host agreement with the UN.   

Furthermore, the UNSC is completely ignoring the unashamed refusal by the US to accept the Iraqi Parliamentary decision that US troops withdraw from their country. Its blatant disregard of the sovereignty of a fellow UN member state is once more evidence of the United States’ total undermining of the global governance system and principles.

Given the US disdain for Iraq and Iran, its broader demonstrable disregard for the sovereignty of a multitude of other countries such as Venezuela, and its utter disrespect of multi-lateral organisations and international law, the South African government would be temerarious in believing that it is above US arrogance.  

The possibility of us being next with regards to having our sovereignty undermined is not at all far-fetched. President Trump is known to have tweeted threats related to South Africa’s land reform process. Beyond tweeting, the US was one of four countries which earlier last year dared to write to President Ramaphosa and give stern directives on how our judiciary should be managed.

The US, of course, possesses the capacity to deliver on its threats. It has a military base in neighbouring Botswana. In 2015, it constructed a US$500 million embassy in Swaziland on a site that is roughly the size of five rugby fields and which allows for perfect monitoring of South Africa. It recently constructed a US$292 million embassy in Harare, Zimbabwe. 

In addition to the US having consolidated bases all around us, there is also the reality that South Africa has been identified as one of the regional anchors for engagement in the US National Security Strategy. It is known that destabilisation is usually driven through non-governmental organisations. Funding by US entities working in South Africa exceeds $500 million.  

The US is also systematically crippling the South African economy by amongst others raising tariffs on steel and aluminium, which in 2018 resulted in losses by South African exporters of roughly R3bn and R474m, in steel and aluminium products, respectively. US tariff increases on automotives and automotive components are likely future economic threats. Another aspect that makes South Africa vulnerable is that we possess the highest levels of chromium and Platinum Group Metals in the world, 72.4 percent and 87.7 percent respectively, which is of great importance as the resource demands change due to the global shift towards greener, and technologically based production methods.

Given that South Africa’s tenure at the UNSC is close to ending, it cannot afford to place objectivity above purpose. At the very least it should ensure that the founding principles of the UNSC are upheld. There is the following famous verse from Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller (an outspoken for of Adolf Hitler):

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
The South African government may today hinge on the side of neutrality when it comes to Iran; but one day the tables may be turned, and then others will hide behind neutrality and fail to come to our aid.

* Reneva Fourie is a policy analyst specialising in governance, development and security.

* The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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