On Monday 17 February 2020, CACS, in collaboration with the UJ Library, hosted a public seminar on ‘The Iran-US Crisis: Implications for Iran-SA Relations’. The main speaker was H.E. Mr Mohsen Movahhedi Ghomi, Ambassador of the Islamic Republic of Iran to South Africa.
It was chaired by Professor Suzy Graham of the Department of Politics and International Relations at UJ. The discussant was Mr Naeem Jeenah, Director of the Afro-Middle East Centre.
Attended by about 130 people, including present and former government officials, business people, representatives of civil society, academics and students, the event successfully highlighted the Centre’s Pan-African and Pan-Asian outlook.
Ambasador Ghomi first explained why the US-Iran crisis has worsened since the start of 2020, and then gave a summary of Iran-South Africa relations, their evolution over time, and how they had matured after the 1994 transition to democacy.
The US-Iran crisis
On 3 January this year, Amb. Ghomi said, General Qasem Soleimani of Iran was killed in an air strike while on an official visit to Iraq. US President Donald Trump had accused Soleimani of being a terrorist who had killed US troops in the Middle East. However, in his view the reasons advanced by the US to justify the assassination were invalid.
‘The US sees its hegemony in danger with the rise of China and India. For the US to guarantee this, it needs to control vital energies in the Middle East. And if they want to do that, they need to control Iran as well.’
He was convinced the US was simply trying to destabilise Iran and the Middle East in order to promote its imperialist ambitions, but had come up against a ‘revolutionary and anti-imperialist Iran’.
Iran-South Africa relations
Ambassador Ghomi mentioned key areas of partnership between Iran and South Africa. For instance, he revealed that Iran was the second most profitable market for MTN, the South African mobile network company. He noted that South Africa could benefit from Iranian expertise in water management, energy, mining equipment, and the exploitation of gas resources.
Naeem Jeenah, who had recently attended General Soleimani’s funeral in Iran, said US-Iran relations had been strained since 1953. Since 1979, the situation had been complicated by the fact that the US had a strategic interest in Iranian oil, but continued to protect Israel, to which Iran was hostile. In contrast with earlier remarks by the Ambassador, he said Iran aspired to becoming a superpower in the Middle East.
He also added nuance to the Ambassador’s depiction of Iran-South Africa relations by raising some diplomatic obstacles between the two countries. Among other things, due to US sanctions, South Africa had not officially imported oil from Iran for the past five or six years. Mr Jeenah concluded by criticizing the use of the terms ‘anti-imperialism’ and ‘terrorism’ as they could be used to mobilise support by dictators or autocratic regimes.
During the question and answer session, members of the audience expressed their concern about the global implications of the Iran-US crisis, the role of constitutional values in South African foreign policy, and South Africa’s role in the UN Security Council in which it sits until later this year. Responding, Ambassador Ghomi emphasised that all countries were interconnected, and needed to collaborate. Dr David Monyae, co-director of the UJCI, thanked everyone for attending.