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Iran’s Africa Fiasco

It hasn't made much noise worldwide, but Iran's rapidly deteriorating relationships with several African countries is huge news across the continent.

by
Banafsheh Zand

Bio

February 25, 2011 - 10:30 am

On February 16, the Nigerian Federal High Court in Lagos began the prosecution of an alleged member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Azim Aghajani, and a Nigerian associate, Usman Abbas Jega. They are accused of arms smuggling. This video link is in Arabic, but is very self-explanatory. It is of the opening day of the court proceedings.

The story is a classic, just one of many on the Dark Continent nowadays: In late October 2010, Nigerian intelligence officials discovered weapons in 13 shipping containers marked building materials in Lagos’ Apapa Port. Following an investigation, Nigerian agents learned that Iran was behind the shipment of arms. At first it was assumed that the shipment was going to the Gaza Strip, however further investigations revealed that the weapons were bound for Gambia under the supervision of a group of Nigerian officials.

The shipment had been organized through International Trade and General Construction, an IRGC front company. It was picked up from the southern Iranian port of Bandar Abbas by CMA CGM (a French shipping company) and transported to Nigeria.

After the discovery of the shipment, the Nigerian government reported Iran to the United Nations Security Council, and Gambia has cut all diplomatic ties with Tehran.

The Iranian regime now faces a diplomatic and strategic disaster, and they are trying desperately to restore at least some of their standing in Nigeria. The Iranian regime has offered the Nigerian government a bribe, and despite everything, the Nigerian government seems happy to accept it.

In a press conference in Abuja, Nigerian ambassador to Tehran Al-Haj Abubakr Chika told reporters that Iran has offered Nigeria a one billion dollar “loan” in order to help Nigeria with a trade and economic development project. Chika added: “This loan will strengthen and expand trade and economic relations between Iran and Nigeria.”

It was a great success for Nigerian diplomacy. Iran started with an offer of $150 million, which was quickly rejected. The final amount was more than six times the original offer, and Chika claimed that the new billion dollar loan was given at a 5% interest rate with an open-ended repayment period. There’s still more to come: Chika has proposed that, in order to facilitate Nigeria’s access to Iran’s financial sources, Tehran should begin establishing trade centers in Nigeria.

There is another important element in this story: weeks before the “sudden” discovery of the 13 containers, Iran secretly hung a Nigerian and a Ghanaian in the horrific Vakilabad prison in the city of Mash’had.

The two were arrested for drug trafficking, a no-no in Iran as that market is cornered by the Revolutionary Guards themselves. Paul Chindo, the Nigerian, was hung in early October and Akwasi Akuaba, the Ghanaian, in August.

Both the Nigerian and Ghanaian embassies in Tehran then formally demanded an explanation as to why the two Africans were executed without notifying their respective embassies, contrary to standard international practice.

Flashback to February 2008, when Iran’s muckraking in Bahrain had reached an all-time high — up to that point, anyhow. Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, one of Khamenei’s relic advisors, announced that Iran had sovereignty over Bahrain. In response, Morocco’s King Mohammed sent Bahraini King Hamad Bin Isa al-Khalifa a message of support, calling the Iranian remarks “absurd” and a contradiction of international law. And then in March, Morocco cut all diplomatic ties with Tehran, closing the Moroccan embassy there.

Rabat also lambasted Iran for its efforts to spread Shi’ite fervor in Morocco, which it saw as threat to the North African country’s moderate Sunni religious identity. Sunni scholars in Morocco and elsewhere also denounced what they had begun to see as Iran’s efforts to convert Sunni Muslims to Shi’ism, arguing the drive would create strife similar to the often bloody Shi’ite-Sunni divides in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, all of which had been inflamed by Iran.

Things continued to boil under the surface as policy makers in the U.S. and Europe snoozed. Then in July 2010, after the world began to see the Iranian regime for what it is, Ahmadinejad traveled to Nigeria and Mali in an attempt to forge new alliances with African states, hoping to do damage control on Iran’s growing isolation.

Attending the July 4-8 Developing Eight (D8) summit in Abuja, Ahmadinejad rallied support for his show of resistance against growing U.S.-led international pressure. Ahmadinejad launched his Africa tour with a one-day visit to Bamako to meet with Malian leaders, and though Iranian-Malian relations were never very close, Ahmadinejad has worked at further developing ties with Mali in an effort to expand African outreach.

Of the approximately 14 million people of Mali, 90% are Muslims. And at least before September 11, 2001, Mali was considered a model African secular and democratic state. Since then, however, a persistent rise of Islamism has become a matter of serious concern.

Ahmadinejad and his cronies are eager to affiliate with and milk such potential, and are creating a support system there that could be transformed into an influential power base.

During that trip, Ahmadinejad also visited Zimbabwe and Uganda. Iran now has observer status in the African Union. In February 2010, Ahmadinejad visited Nairobi, Kenya and the Indian Ocean archipelago of the Comoros with a trade delegation numbering nearly 100. While Ahmadinejad was in Nairobi, Iran and Kenya signed a memorandum of understanding on water and oil and inaugurated a direct Kenya Airways flight between the two nations.

Iran’s interest in assisting African water extends to the Sudan, where the Iranian regime has offered technical and engineering products for Sudan’s water projects.

Iran and Sudan, which are both subject to U.S. economic sanctions, have been close allies for decades and have signed a number of economic and commercial cooperation agreements. In January 2007, the two governments signed a military cooperation agreement during a visit by Sudanese Defense Minister Abdel-Rahim Mohamed Hussein to Iran.

In the volatile Indian Ocean island nation of Comoros, a presidential election just occurred. It is not clear as to where the new President Ikililou Dhoinine stands. However, prior to these elections, then-Comorian Vice President Eidi Nezam rallied for severing ties with Iran. Fratmat reported of discord between the Comoran President Sambi — known as “The Ayatollah” — and his VP Eidi Nezam over relations and cooperation with Iran. Iran has been making noise about developing relations with Sambi, and though Sambi had clearly stated that Comoros is not ready for Islamic revolution, Nezam alleged that Sambi (who despite his Sunni background was trained in Qom by Mesbah Yazdi) is handing their country over to the Shi’ites.

So in February 2009, which took Ahmadinejad to not only Comoros, but also Djibouti and Kenya, Ahmadinejad mentioned that expansion of Tehran’s relations with African countries is a “priority for Iran’s foreign policy.”

In late February, Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ramin Mehman-Parast arrived in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, with a media delegation on a tour of Africa which was designed for public relations and media troubleshooting. They also traveled to Kenya and South Africa.

The regime-run Fars News Agency wrote: “Tehran has prioritized promotion of its economic and political ties with the African states and the country is now considered as one of the African Union’s strategic partners.” But it is not so. On February 23, the Senegalese government announced that it was severing ties with Iran because Iranian weapons were used in Sunday’s attack by rebels of the Democratic Forces of Casamance that killed three Senegalese soldiers and wounded several others.

Iranian-African relations are now so bad that they are frequently front-page news all over the continent, and the feverish Iranian damage control seems not to have had much effect. Indeed, things keep getting worse.

Banafsheh Zand is a New York-based Iranian political analyst and human rights activist.
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