Pandor-ing to Iran

‘I don’t know’ if Iran is an authoritarian regime, South Africa’s foreign minister says

Naledi Pandor repeatedly refused to say that Iran is an authoritarian regime, as South Africa’s relationship with malign actors comes under scrutiny

Christoph Soeder/picture alliance via Getty Images

Naledi Pandor, Foreign Minister of South Africa, attends a bilateral meeting with Foreign Minister Baerbock at the South African Foreign Ministry.

South Africa’s Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Naledi Pandor said on Tuesday that she did not know whether Iran is an authoritarian regime, pushing back repeatedly on characterizations of it as a dictatorship.

The comments come as South Africa is under increased scrutiny over its relationships with regimes like Iran, Russia and China, as well as Hamas, as it simultaneously pursues a genocide case against Israel at the International Court of Justice. These factors have prompted the House Foreign Affairs Committee to consider legislation on Wednesday on reassessing the U.S.-South Africa relationship.

Pandor, speaking at an event hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, was asked about the BRICS economic bloc’s decision to welcome four authoritarian governments — Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt — into the group.

She disputed the characterization, questioning “who makes these judgments? Because I don’t know, this assessment, that you’re making.” Pressed by moderator Dan Baer, Carnegie’s senior vice president for policy research, on whether Iran is authoritarian, she responded, “I don’t know whether they are an authoritarian regime.”

“I’m not aware — I don’t have that definition in my logbook,” she repeated, asked again by a seemingly incredulous Baer.

Pandor said she does have concerns about women’s rights in Iran, and said she’s raised the issue with Iran’s foreign minister, insisting that South Africa cannot “close off engagement with any country,” instead seeking “to use our own democratic success as an example to others to say, this actually works.”

“If we stopped talking to everybody because we define them in a particular way, I think the models we have adopted would not have any meaning,” she continued. “I do think that there is a strength in being able to speak to everyone because if you close off, I’m not sure that you achieve anything.”

Pandor repeatedly decried the legislation that’s scheduled for a markup in the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday. The bill, led by Reps. John James (R-MI) and Jared Moskowitz (D-FL), would instruct the State Department to reassess the bilateral relationship, in light of South Africa’s ties to U.S. adversaries in Iran, Russia, China and Hamas, as well as the ICJ case.

“It will reduce, firstly, sovereign independence and also curtail honest reflection on policies of countries and cause everybody to pretend to hold a view which they may not truly believe in because they’re trying to pacify,” she said. “And I think that would be an awful political context and international context to work in.” 

She added that she is “frankly horrified for a democracy to take such a step,” arguing that diplomatic disputes should be handled between governments, not inside the legislature. She claimed that the bill is perhaps being pursued because “South Africa is punching too far above its weight.” 

“Well, if she’s defending Iran, I have nothing more to add on that,” Moskowitz said in a statement to JI on Pandor’s comments at the Carnegie event.

Pandor also addressed questions about the ICJ case, accusing Israel of ignoring the court’s preliminary order and claiming that the situation would embolden authoritarian regimes.

“I think we, as humanity, need to look at ourselves in horror and dismay. And to be really worried that we have set an example for those very authoritarian regimes that you spoke to earlier, to believe, well, this license, ‘I can do what I want, and I will not be stopped,’” she said. “Because the minute you allow something like this, then what you’re doing is setting in place a form of practice that will be very difficult to challenge in future.”

She said that the situation requires the international community to “examine how do we find a better way?”

Asked about South Africa’s aggressive posture toward Israel but its relative silence with regard to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and disregard for international law, Pandor insisted that “we need to be able to speak to both [Russia and Ukraine]” adding that “there are concerns of security on both sides.”

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