SA invited to right side of history


Two weeks ago, 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 co-operation. 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 R358-million 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 R20-billion 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 Africa-Iran harmony is clearly apparent, even if we don’t fully understand its motives.

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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