Source: Ebrahim Gilani from Mianeh
Iran has succeeded in derailing its relationship with not one but three West African states in the embarrassing fallout surrounding a secret arms shipment.
The row has left the Iranian administration's hopes of expanding its political influence and trade ties with African states in tatters.
Senegal broke off diplomatic relations with Tehran last month, saying it had evidence that separatist rebels in the southern region of Casamance used Iranian ammunition to kill government soldiers in a clash on February 21.
In December, Senegal recalled its ambassador but then sent him back to Tehran after saying it was satisfied with explanations given about an arms shipment seized by the Nigerian authorities last October.
When a ship that docked in Lagos and 13 containers labelled as construction machinery were found to contain Iranian weapons, the authorities there seized the freight, made several arrests, and reported the find to the United Nations as a breach of the Security Council embargo on arms purchases from Iran.
An Iranian national called Azim Aghajani is currently standing trial in Nigeria over the arms shipment case. The country's security service alleges that he is a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, and that the weapons may have been intended to foment instability in Nigeria ahead of an election this April. In court, Aghajani's lawyers denied the accusations, but acknowledged that he had accompanied the shipment.
Tehran did not deny it was the source of the shipment but tried to deflect criticism by saying the shipment was actually meant for Gambia. Hossein Abdollahi, the Iranian ambassador in Nigeria, said the vessel had not violated the UN embargo because the arms sale to Gambia had been contracted in 2008, whereas the Security Council resolution was passed only last year. This argument was redundant as the relevant UN resolution was passed in 2007, not 2010.
Senegal's concerns at the time were that the arms might find their way from Gambia to the separatists in Casamance.
In a surprise move, Gambia cut all ties with Tehran in November and gave all representatives of the Iranian government 48 hours to leave the country. No explanation was given, even though relations with Iran have been warm in recent years.
Ambassador Abdollahi said the Gambian authorities were unhappy that Tehran had shared information with Nigeria about a confidential arms sale.
If the arms seizure has marred relations with Nigeria, it has resulted in a complete reverse for Tehran's prolonged attempts to engage with Senegal and Gambia. It also highlights a broader failure to build and sustain relations with a range of sub-Saharan countries.
In Senegal, Iran has spent years investing in building schools, promoting Islam, laying roads and setting up a carmaking plant. Its ambassador in Dakar, Jahanbakhsh Hassanzadeh, had voiced hope that as economic ties grew, Iran would emerge as Senegal's principal Asian partner.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad should have formally inaugurated the car plant in January, but this did not happen because of the shipment scandal, and because he sacked his foreign minister, Manouchehr Motakki, while the latter was visiting Senegal in December.
Relations with Gambia, a tiny state entirely enclosed by Senegal, took off after the current president, Yahya Jammeh, came to power in 1994, and investment projects and trade deals soon followed. Two years later, Ahmadinejad was invited as guest of honour to an African Summit hosted by Gambia. Like Senegal, Gambia has been a useful ally on the international scene, defending Iran's position on developing nuclear power in the face of western criticism.
Iran's engagement with some of the smaller African states has been most marked at times when it is under pressure; it began when the country was isolated during the war with Iraq in the 1980s. Under the presidency of Ahmadinejad's predecessor Mohammad Khatami, a special council was set up to foster these relationships. But despite a flurry of visits, Africa was not at this point a key target of political or economic interest for Iran.
With Ahmadinejad's election in 2005 and an increasingly hostile international environment facing Iran, the race was on to reach out to make new friends, and they no longer had to be Muslim states or neighbours. The new president stepped up efforts in sub-Saharan countries, going on visits and inaugurating construction projects. A meeting of African Union foreign ministers even took place in Iran.
At a diplomatic level, most African states are members of the Non-Aligned Movement and many are part of the Islamic Conference Organisation, while economically, they are open to the kind of investment and trade Iran can bring.
Despite the surge in interest in African states, Tehran has failed to achieve decisive progress. Even though it has 27 embassies across the continent, foreign ministry officials have acknowledged publicly that many African states remain little-known.
At present, over 300 agreements with African states have not been put into effect. There are unconfirmed reports that 22 of the 26 African ambassadors in Tehran have complained that investment pledges have not been delivered on.
According to some unconfirmed news, the ambassadors of 22 African countries have threatened to cut off their relationships with Iran because Tehran's authorities have not kept their promises of investing in projects in these countries.
Mohammad Reza Bagheri, who served as deputy foreign minister during Ahamadinejad's first term in office, said in 2008 that Iran had no long-term strategy for relations in Africa, and that its embassies there were ineffective.
Despite the many setbacks, Tehran nevertheless appears set on pursuing relations with Africa.
Just minutes after parliament confirmed Ali Akbar Salehi in office as Iran's new foreign minister on January 30, it was announced that he would be heading off to Ethiopia to attend the African Union Summit. But a few hours later, news came that the trip had been cancelled because the minister was too busy.
A London-based diplomat from an African country, who did not want to be identified, said this erratic behaviour exemplified the pattern of Iran's wider relationships on the continent. In other words, hastily-made decisions, hesitation and a failure to follow through are nothing new.
Ebrahim Gilani is the pseudonym of an Iranian journalist and foreign policy analyst based in London.
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