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Iran's Khatami Takes African Tour to Strengthen Ties

By Nico Colombant, VOA, Abidjan

Iran's President Mohammad Khatami has started a scheduled seven-nation African tour, with his delegation working on cooperation agreements in Nigeria.

One of the deals concerns revamping Nigeria's Kainji hydro plant, as well as five transformers across the country. Oil and mining are also being discussed by the 25-member Iranian delegation. It is made up of government ministers and businessmen.

The minister for Nigeria's Federal Territory, Nasir El-Rufai, tells VOA he has been encouraged by the delegation's visit.

"There isn't enough trade between third world countries and Iran is a significant country," he said. "We are talking about deepening our areas of economic cooperation so that we trade more between our countries and reduce unemployment and poverty amongst our people. We all have that common challenge as countries and it has been very satisfying the way the discussions have been going."

Abuja-based Middle East-Africa analyst Samir Faky says Nigeria could also use Iran's help to develop what he calls its forgotten agriculture sector.

"They kind of got rid of it when they discovered oil," he said. "I think President Olusegun Obasanjo is willing to make the people return back to their first jobs, which is agriculture and planting just to get rid of importing food and any materials that can be done in Nigeria. Iran can provide that very well. Iran has a lot of experience and very good experience in the agriculture sector and for the manufacture of agriculture materials."

Mr. Faky says the United States, which counts Nigeria as its fifth biggest source of crude oil, may be concerned that Iran is showing growing interest in West Africa's biggest economy.

"The cooperation between Iran and Nigeria I think will be like something like an obstacle between the two countries, the United States and Nigeria," he said. "But I think President Obasanjo is very clever to deal with that because he looks for another market to market his materials here: like oil, like agricultural products. He wants to get benefit from countries from all over the world."

The visit could also spark concerns Nigeria is interested in Iran's U.S.-suspected nuclear weapons program, which Iranian officials deny pursuing. Last year, a visit to Nigeria by a North Korean delegation raised concerns among U.S. officials that Nigeria was looking into acquiring missile technology.

U.S.-based Iran expert Patrick Clawson doesn't believe anything of substance will actually be achieved during the delegation's African tour, in Nigeria or elsewhere.

"I would assume that the Iranians would want to sign a number of agreements which they will present as representing large-scale economic and cultural ties," he said. "These kinds of framework agreements for future exchanges don't necessarily mean that much even though they may sound impressive, because they don't tie down all the details. They are just an expression of a wish."

After Nigeria, Mr. Khatami and his delegation are scheduled for visits in Mali, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Benin and Zimbabwe.

... Payvand News - 1/14/05 ... --

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