TRADING IN TROUBLE
South Africa’s links with Hamas and Iran pose new threat to Agoa as Republican senator weighs in
A top Republican senator has vowed ‘course-corrective action’ against South Africa.
The top Republican in the US Senate foreign relations committee has vowed to try to reverse the Biden administration’s decision this week to extend South Africa’s full Agoa trade benefits next year.
Senator Jim Risch has written to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Trade Representative Katherine Tai, strongly criticising the hosting of the Agoa Forum in South Africa this week and the continuation of the country’s Agoa eligibility.
South Africa should not have been rewarded because it had subverted US national security and foreign policy interests by its relationships with Hamas, Iran and Russia and its criticism of Israel, he said.
Because of the Biden administration’s failure to communicate its concerns to South Africa, the US Congress would have to take “course-corrective action”, Risch said. This implied that he intended initiating action to reverse the Biden administration’s decision to keep South Africa in Agoa next year.
Risch’s letter emerged just as Blinken, President Cyril Ramaphosa and other senior officials from both governments were about to officially launch the Agoa Forum at Nasrec on Friday.
The South African government earlier lobbied energetically to keep the Agoa Forum and South Africa’s duty-free exports to the US under Agoa, after Risch and other congressional leaders had opposed this because of Pretoria’s perceived closeness to Russia.
A truly ‘non-aligned’ partner would engage with international third-party partners, including the United Nations, on humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza rather than the leader of a foreign terrorist organisation.
Now the eruption of war between Hamas and Israel and Republican perceptions of Pretoria’s closeness to Hamas and to Iran, which sponsors Hamas, have presented a new threat to South Africa’s Agoa benefits.
Risch cites International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor’s recent phone call to Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, her visit to Iran to meet Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and what he says was a proposed visit by Raisi this week that was cancelled, as reasons for concern.
“Recent statements and actions by the South African government against Israel’s right to self-defence and its engagement with Hamas (including a phone call by Foreign Minister Pandor to Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh) following its October 7 terrorist attack on Israel further prove the administration’s policy towards South Africa is dangerous,” Risch wrote.
“While Pandor reported discussing humanitarian aid to Gaza and denied media reports that she expressed support for Hamas in the call, a truly ‘non-aligned’ partner would engage with international third-party partners, including the United Nations, on humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza rather than the leader of a foreign terrorist organisation.
That Raisi’s visit was even considered… makes clear yet again that South Africa’s government has priorities in direct conflict with our national security concerns.
“Earlier this year, Foreign Minister Pandor also urged the International Criminal Court to arrest ‘the leaders of apartheid Israel’. This is not a matter of miscommunication or misunderstanding; South Africa has taken a clear policy position.”
In August, Iranian Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian visited Pretoria for the 15th South Africa-Iran Joint Commission of Cooperation, followed shortly by the participation of Iran’s President Raisi in the BRICS Summit in Johannesburg. During the summit, Iran joined the BRICS alliance.
In late October Pandor had visited Tehran. Recent media reports indicated that Iranian President Raisi would visit South Africa this week, immediately preceding the Thursday start of the Agoa Forum.
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“While I understand the South African government has since tabled the plans for Raisi’s visit, that such a visit was even considered does not reflect well on the administration’s choice of venue, and makes clear yet again that South Africa’s government has priorities in direct conflict with our national security concerns.”
Risch cited the letter which he and Democratic Senator Chris Coons and other congressional leaders had written to the Biden administration on 9 June, calling on it to reconsider hosting the Agoa Forum in South Africa and also to reconsider extending South Africa’s Agoa benefits because South Africa had allowed US-sanctioned entities such as the Russian cargo ship Lady R to enter South Africa.
“Beyond flouting the US’s targeted Russia-related sanctions, the government of South Africa has deepened its dependency on China. It continues to bolster ties with Iran and Cuba, both state sponsors of terrorism” Risch said.
He said he would move to tighten the Agoa eligibility requirements. The argument that this would hinder broader US trade and investment in Africa “and hamper US efforts to counter economic threats by global malign actors” was “misplaced”.
“Every time the United States refuses to respond to actions by China, Russia or Iran, these arguments lose merit. Prioritising commerce over our principles and national security interests undermines our credibility as a strategic alternative to their way of doing business.”
Risch said he supported the reauthorisation of the overall Agoa programme before it expires in 2025.
But hosting the Agoa Forum in South Africa and maintaining South Africa’s eligibility benefits in 2024 “compromises the programme’s integrity and our trade preferences”.
He urged “robust changes to Agoa’s eligibility criteria, management of the Agoa programme by USTR, and oversight of the act’s implementation by Congress”.
“Recent actions by South Africa to directly challenge the United States and align with our adversaries make the Johannesburg forum another example of the administration sending mixed messages and engaging in contradictory foreign policy.
“The inconsistent responses and actions of the administration undermine US credibility, making it more challenging for allies to align with our policies and to deter our adversaries’ efforts.”
A senior US official said: “We appreciate the senator’s concerns. Agoa is a cornerstone of our economic engagement with the continent and has benefited Africans and Americans for decades. The Agoa Forum is critically important to enable us to consult African leaders and businesses on Agoa’s future.” DM