A political wrangle over an Iranian arms shipment seized in Nigeria has set back the Persian Gulf nation’s efforts to cultivate links in Africa as it seeks to forestall diplomatic isolation over its nuclear program.
A United Nations team arrived in Nigeria Jan. 16 to probe the consignment of rockets, grenades and mortar shells that may have been destined for Gambia or Senegal in West Africa. Gambia cut ties with Iran in November and ordered its diplomats out of the country over the shipment. A month later, Senegal recalled its ambassador, citing “grave concern” about the weapons.
“What’s happened is obviously a big warning sign,” said Gala Riania, Middle East analyst at IHS Global Insight, a Lexington, Massachusetts-based research group. “It’s definitely going to make West African states a lot more wary of Iran.”
Iran is pursuing closer relations in Africa as the U.S., the European Union and the United Nations enforce economic sanctions against the country. The Iranian effort worries the U.S., and at least one senior Republican Party lawmaker has warned Africans to shun Iran if they want additional U.S. aid.
Iran is focusing attention on states with substantial Muslim populations such as Senegal and Niger to try to leverage off their shared faith. Iranian leaders are also tailoring their campaign to resonate among Africans who see the continent’s poverty and lack of development as a legacy of Western colonialism.
“We do not want to plunder Africa like the Westerners and colonialists, and we’re seeking bilateral economic relations beneficial to both sides,” Iran’s former foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, told Iranian businessmen in Tehran in November.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad traveled to Africa at least three times last year. In April, he visited Zimbabwe to attend a trade fair, and then Uganda, where Iran is building a tractor-assembly plant and may invest in a proposed $2 billion oil refinery, according to Uganda’s Foreign Ministry. Three months later, he traveled to Nigeria, where Saipa, Iran’s second-biggest car manufacturer, signed an accord in November to jointly produce and market budget vehicles in Africa’s most- populous nation.
The commercial diplomacy has some parallel in Iran’s expanding trade and investment in Latin America, where Ahmadinejad has found ideological partners in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Brazil. Saipa and Iran Khodro, the country’s largest automaker, aim to quadruple production at a joint-venture car plant in Venezuela.
In Africa, “their goal is to win votes in the UN and to increase the number of countries that support them there, to win economic points, to increase Iran’s economic clout in the region and in the world,” Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born Middle East analyst at Meepas, said in an interview on Nov. 11. “The Iranian leadership sees Iran as a superpower, and superpowers build alliances.” Meepas is a risk-analysis group based in Tel Aviv.
Ahmadinejad had been scheduled to visit Senegal late last year to inaugurate the plant. Those plans were called off because of the “diplomatic incident,” Papa Dieng, a special adviser to President Abdoulaye Wade, said in an interview from Dakar, the Senegalese capital, on Jan. 11.
“We are in the process of reconsidering the cooperation, to see which projects we should continue, which ones we should halt,” Dieng said.
The Iranian arms shipment may have been heading for Gambia, where President Yahya Jammeh might have intended to give the weapons to a loyalist militia or sell them for a profit, Africa Confidential, the London-based publication, reported last month. A man who answered the phone at the Gambian Presidency on Jan. 26, who declined to identify himself, said Jammeh’s office wouldn’t speculate on the report.
Alternatively, the arms may have been destined for separatists in Senegal’s Casamance region, Strategic Forecasting Inc., an Austin, Texas-based intelligence group, said in November.
“We do not know the destination of these arms,” Sara Ndiaye, acting director of the Asia department at Senegal’s Foreign Ministry, said in an interview on Jan. 12. “We are waiting for this question to be resolved before we can say what our relationship with Iran will be going forward. Until then, our relationship is on stand-by.”
On Jan. 21, Wade told the country’s ambassador to return to Iran following a 24-hour visit to Dakar by interim Foreign Minsiter Ali Akbar Salehi, who pledged to provide as much as $200 million for joint economic projects.
Senegal’s imports from Iran grew nearly 20-fold to 8.32 billion West African CFA francs ($17.7 million) in 2009 from 2005, according to the country’s statistics office. Iranian exports to Africa overall more than doubled to $292.5 million from $129.6 million over the same period, according to statistics supplied by Global Trade Information Services Inc., a Columbia, South Carolina-based research group.
Iran is still a modest player in Africa compared with Turkey, which sold $10.2 billion worth of goods in the continent in 2009, according to the State Statistics Agency in Ankara. Brazil shipped $9.26 billion last year, 6.1 percent higher than in 2009, according to Brazilian Trade Ministry figures.
Even so, Iran’s efforts on the continent are a “big test” of U.S. influence, said Alex Vines, Africa analyst at Chatham House, the London-based research group.
“For the U.S., other emerging powers in Africa wouldn’t be such a concern, but Iran is kind of hard-wired to give American diplomats concerns,” he said. “That makes Iran different from a Turkey or even China.”
Expanding ties with Iran may cost African nations some of the $6.7 billion in annual aid the continent receives from the U.S. The Republican-led Congress plans to reassess all foreign development aid in the coming year, said Ed Royce, the ranking Republican for the Congressional subcommittee on nuclear proliferation.
“African governments forging close relationships with Iran are not the types of governments we want to do business with,” Royce said in an e-mailed response to questions on Nov. 24.
Tougher U.S. sanctions have cost Iran as much as $60 billion in lost energy investment, U.S. Undersecretary of State William Burns said on Dec. 1. Growth in the Persian Gulf nation was estimated at 1 to 2 percent in 2010 from 2.3 percent a year earlier, according to the International Monetary Fund. Sanctions may also constrain Iran’s ability to invest abroad.
“In light of sanctions they have limited liquidity and limited access to financial markets,” said Sanam Vakil, an adjunct professor of Iranian and Middle Eastern politics at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Baltimore. “Their economy is coming under increased strain. They don’t have as much resources to invest abroad.”
Ahmadinejad said he saw “no limits or restrictions” on Iran’s cooperation with Africa, describing African nations on Sept. 14 as “friends and brothers.”