On the evening of October 23, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif attended a reception at the Pretoria Country Club organized by the Iranian embassy in South Africa. While there, Zarif met with Iraj Abedian, one of South Africa’s most prominent economists. Abedian is of Iranian descent — and he’s also a Baha’i, part of a community that Iran’s authorities have cruelly oppressed for generations.
This might have been the first time that the Islamic Republic’s highest diplomat has met with a prominent Baha’i figure, a man who has represented the faith at the highest national level in South Africa, serving as treasurer of the National Spiritual Assembly.
Iraj Abedian is among the most prominent economists in South Africa and, since 2000, chief economist for the Standard Bank. He has advised the South African government since the fall of Apartheid and was a notable advisor to presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki. Abedian came to South Africa in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution and studied at the University of Cape Town (UCT). After getting a PhD from Canada's Simon Fraser University, he returned to teach at UCT for 18 years. Currently, he is both active in the private sector and regularly engages in public policy debates.
IranWire spoke to Abedian about the unique circumstances, and what he and the Iranian foreign minister discussed.
Under what circumstances did you meet Foreign Minister Javad Zarif?
As you know, he was headed to Uganda and stopped in South Africa, which is because of the wide relationship between the two governments. As sanctions on Iran are being removed, Iran is also trying to market its oil and petrochemical products here. Dr Zarif is on a sub-Saharan African tour with a fairly large delegation.
The Iranian embassy had arranged a reception for him and they had invited about 200 Iranians, and for the first time in many decades, they also invited me and I went.
What did you talk about?
When he finished his speech, there were a lot of guests who wanted to shake hands with him and take selfies with him. I waited until the last person left and it was more dignified and quiet. Then I introduced myself and we had a good handshake. I congratulated him for his wonderful work at the international level. I genuinely believe he is the first foreign minister since the revolution in Iran who can think internationally and speak internationally. He is a very intelligent man who I have followed closely.
I also used the opportunity to raise the point that as much as I am proud of his achievements as an Iranian, I am disappointed that conditions faced by the Baha’i community and other minorities is not in the national interest and is not in accordance with Islamic values or Islamic-Iranian values. Obviously, the time was limited and there were a lot of people around but he was very focused and very friendly. He said the solution to this dilemma can [happen] through the charter of Citizenship Rights [launched by the administration of President Hassan Rouhani], which covers human rights and citizen rights for all, regardless of their religious beliefs. He also said that it is not through religion that we can solve this issue. I said that whatever the approach, you need to start, you need to test it and see if it delivers.
I also mentioned that his achievements at the global nuclear level only answer part of the problems, as there are equally explosive societal conflicts inside the country that can be equally damaging to the country’s progress and development.
Throughout the conversation, he was very friendly and calm, even as his entourage were quite tense.
Some might ask how can it be that a Baha’i who has seen so much suffering caused by the Iranian government be so calm when meeting one of its most important representatives?
This is due to the guiding principles of the Baha’i faith. There is no point in being violent, no benefit in outburst and outrage. We need to put the focus on issues and be factual, and look to positive solutions. If they offer you poison, you should offer honey. I did mention to Dr Zarif that my friends had been in prison and that some Baha’is had been murdered, and that some are in prison right now. I stressed that this is a life and death issue. That this is not only the problem of a small minority — because it concerns the ethics and morality of the whole society; of what makes Iranian Iranian and what makes Islamic Islamic. My principle is that we can not retaliate [against] violence with violence. We can only show love, composure and readiness to take the country and society forward.
I was also very aware that he is in a very difficult situation as he is stuck between a rock and a hard place. Intellectually, he understands the issue but he has political configurations that he has to maneuver around at home. As such, he is faced with a difficult balancing act. But at the same time, the life of tens of thousands of our fellow Iranians is at stake.
Does this make you hopeful that dialogue and collaboration can be possible?
I am always hopeful and look for solutions. When Dr Zarif mentioned that many Baha’is insist on putting their religion down in all application forms and if they didn’t, there wouldn’t be any problem, I said that if the government wants to fix this, they should remove the religion column so it is the same for everybody, Muslim, Christian, Jewish or Baha’i. Baha’is are not allowed to lie. I also spoke to staff at the embassy and said I am very happy to help them promote Iranian interests in South Africa, at the service of national interest.
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