On January 3 2020, four hellfire missiles, fired by a predator drone, ripped into the convoy driving the Iranian Revolutionary Command Guard Commander, General Qassem Soleimani. The impact reverberated across Iran, the Middle East and into Africa itself. For those who supported the regime, this was a calamity as Soleimani was a hero. For the 68% of Iranians who did not support the rule of the Ayatollahs, he was no hero and they believe that Iranians should not be involved in conflicts outside of Iran given the pressing domestic needs. For the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries, it meant the death of someone who had done much to promote the Shia crescent- the malicious arc which had so threatened them. On the Palestinian streets the divisions were palpable between Hamas, who regarded Soleimani as a hero and who received support from his Revolutionary Guards, and Fatah, who did not regard him in this manner. In South Africa, the Boycott, Divestment Sanction (BDS) movement with all its divisions was at a loss in terms of how to respond to his death. 

While many expected his death to cause chaos, outrage and instability, this had not been the case. If anything, Iran seemed to be enjoying an eerie calm. Much of Arab world was elated by his death, especially those in Iraq, the Persian Gulf, and parts of Syria and Lebanon. This joy stemmed from the fact that he was the architect of Iran’s expansionist policies. Soleimani was despised for his creation of Shia militias across Arab countries and the indoctrination of young men to submit to Iran. During the Syrian civil war, he worked closely with the Lebanese Hezbollah and introduced young men to Shia mercenaries from Afghanistan. Sunni Muslims blamed him for the death of over half a million Syrians. Soleimani was also hated by fellow Shia’s in Iraq and Iran for assisting in upholding a repressive system. Many believed that his death avenged Iraqi protestors seeking an end to Iranian influence over Iraq and greater democratization. While his death had not caused retaliation, chaos and or a war, it is worth noting that Iran suffered an irreplaceable loss. Under his leadership the country had managed to build and command a 200,000-strong Quds (Jerusalem) Force, create and direct a network of proxies, spies and terrorists, and ascend as a force in the Middle East. With his departure, his policies remain unchanged and the militia clients powerful.

Palestine sparked some controversy by not commemorating the death of Soleimani, as he was regarded as a controversial figure by many organizations in the country- even those who received Iranian assistance. This was based on his involvement in the deaths of many Sunnis, as well as his fuelling of sectarian and political cleavages. Regardless thereof, Palestine had a unique position. It needed to work with resistance forces to support and develop its’ capabilities. Palestine continued to work with Tehran against their mutual enemy, Israel. Soleimani expended the Iranian support for Palestinian factions to include left-wing forces, as well as Islamic forces. The loss of his experience and capabilities is a short term loss for many Palestinian factions. It is worth noting that Iran’s support for Palestinian factions is a state policy and not based on personal relations.

The South African ANC-led government condemned the US airstrike which killed Soleimani and called it an “in-human episode”. It stated that this aggressive attack undermined global peace and security. It urged the global community to defend nations against the unilateral imposition of economic sanctions, unilateral military attacks and disrespect of territorial integrity and sovereignty. It is no surprise that South Africa and Iran have a robust and growing relationship which dates back to February 16, 1994 when the countries formally established diplomatic relations. It is worth noting that Iran was one of the first countries to resume trade with South Africa post-1994. Consequently, South Africa has publicly affirmed its’ commitment towards this relationship. In so doing, the country has advocated for Iranian interest at the United Nations Security Council and the International Atomic Energy Agency. Its’ commitment towards this relationship has also resulted in Iran and South Africa’s joint business-tech forum, scientific co-operation and tourism. South Africa is also an important defence partner to Tehran. The country has allowed Tehran to conduct out-of-area naval operations on its’ soil. While the two countries have a great relationship, it should be noted that South Africa has other reasons for encouraging peace between Iran and the US. The country’s Minister of International Relations, Naledi Pandor, stated that a war between the US and Iran could threaten South Africa’s fragile economy, as it could result in petrol and oil price increases. During that week oil prices increased to $70 a barrel. It was estimated that Iranian foreign direct investment in South Africa was $135 billion for 2018 alone.

Many South Africans commiserate with Palestine as they believe the Palestinian occupation under Israel to be similar to their experience under apartheid South Africa. They believe they have a shared history of fighting racism, repression and colonialism. This makes them natural allies and explains why the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement was modelled similarly to the South African boycott movement. The South African BDS movement changed its’ name to #Africa4Palestine. The #Africa4Palestine movement commemorated the first anniversary of Soleimani’s death in a webinar which included speakers such as Ambassador Aghajafari who spoke of Soleimani’s work in the region. During the webinar they spoke about his efforts to “create peace” in the region. He also stated that Soleimani’s death weakens efforts to “fighting terrorism” in the region, as well as the current crisis management in the region. He also stated that US and the Zionist regime of Israel seek more tensions in the region to divert attention away from the Palestinian occupation. The fact that some in South Africa believe this despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary is beyond the realms of disbelief.

The ANC-led government has been critiqued for its’ support for Soleimani as he was responsible for the deaths of many in the Middle East as well as posing a threat to global security. These include the deaths of Jews in Argentina and Iranian opposition members and activists. Critics believed him to be a war criminal and terrorist as he encouraged hatred and sectarian violence. They believe that the mourning of such an individual and standing by the regime which created a religious apartheid and discriminates against religious minorities in Iran, undermines the values for which the ANC advocates. Iran’s stance in relation to its’ own citizens is more akin to the relationship of the repressive Apartheid state and black South Africans. The professed ideological affinity between Tehran and Pretoria, therefore, makes no sense.

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Sanet Solomon is a Lecturer in the Department of Political Sciences at the University of South Africa. She is finalizing her PhD in the Centre for Gender and Africa Studies at the University of the Free...

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