It is worrisome to notice that Iran has a free hand in dealing with Sub-Saharan countries -- largely due to the void of influence left by the U.S. and Europe, whose strategic and economic interests for Africa appear to be dwindling.
Iran has not yet succeeded in fully securing its friendships in the region; a strong response from the U.S. and Europe is needed to deter Iran from getting support from African countries and from continuing to spread its anti-Western propaganda.
Over the past few years, Iran has increased its efforts to break its isolation to soften the consequences of the sanctions imposed by the international community. It did so by looking for new allies in developing countries, especially in the African continent. These news friends were identified among the dictatorial regimes in Africa that could easily be lured into trading political support for some financial aid. However, Iran's charm offensive has been marked by some severe mishaps due to its inveterated habit of meddling into other countries' internal affairs.
Iranian Arms Shipment to Nigeria
In late October 2010, Nigerian officials seized in Lagos' Apapa Port, the largest shipping port in the country, thirteen shipping containers of weapons, including 107mm artillery rockets, rifle rounds and arms. The rockets can accurately hit targets more than 8.5 kilometers away, with a 12-meter killing radius. Terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq have used similar rockets against U.S. troops. China, Iran, the United States, and Russia manufacture versions of the rocket. The seizure came after a twin car bombing on October 1st (Nigeria's Independence Day) in Abuja, which killed at least twelve people and injured many others. The discovery sparked new concerns, as Nigeria presidential elections are set to be held in April 2011.
The investigation that followed quickly showed that Iran was behind this shipment. One of the first hypotheses was that the shipment of arms was destined for the Gaza Strip, however further investigating showed instead that the final destination was Gambia, a small country, totally encircled by Senegal except for a short coastline on the Atlantic Ocean. A French-based international cargo shipper, CMA CGM, has said that one of its ships picked up the containers from Bandar Abbas, a port in southern Iran. "The consignment did originate in Iran," said Nigerian FM Odein Ajumogobia "That has been confirmed from our own shipping documents, and the Iranian authorities have also confirmed that the consignment originated in Iran".
The cargo was labeled "Building Materials," and later transferred to a warehouse in Lagos. Media have reported that the consignee was a Nigerian, and that the goods were originally meant for an address in the Nigerian capital, Abuja. The cargo was intercepted when it returned to the port to be re-exported to a third country, Gambia. Nigeria reported the seizure to the United Nations Security Council.
Two men are facing trial in Nigeria in connection with the seizure of the cargo: Azim Aghajani, an alleged Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and Nigerian suspect Ali Abbas Jega.
In November 2010, in reaction to the that weapons shipment having Gambia as its final destination, the Gambian government cut diplomatic ties with Iran and asked the Iranian diplomats to leave the country within 48 hours. "All Government of Gambia projects and programs, that were being implemented in cooperation with the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran have been cancelled," the Gambian Foreign Ministry stated.
Prior to the crisis, Iran and Gambia -- which supported Teheran's right to develop nuclear capabilities -- enjoyed a good diplomatic and economic relationship. Relations between the two states took off after the eccentric Gambian President, Yahya Jammeh, came to power in 1994. The French news agency Afrik reports that their mutual understanding in foreign policy came from a "shared feeling of oppression from the West: Iran under sanctions for its nuclear program and Gambia accused of human rights abuses." In 2006, the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that both nations were under pressure from "bullying" powers, and in November 2009, he visited to Gambia to strengthen ties.
In February 2011, Iran admitted that it had shipped the thirteen containers; disclosed that the cargo was meant to be sent to Gambia as part of a confidential agreement signed three years ago, and that the goods seized were the third of such shipments. Hence, despite four United Nations Security Council sanctions and a ban against Iran's weapon program, Iran admitted to continue supplying arms to African countries, and contributing to the destabilization of the continent.
Iranian Ambassador to Nigeria, Hussein Abdullahi, further stated that "Gambia expelled our diplomat because they felt we had disclosed a confidential agreement which we had." In a press conference, however, when asked why the cache was disguised as building material, he said he did not know, as a private company had handled the shipment. The Iranian ambassador added that Iran did not violate the UN embargo, as the arms sale to Gambia had been contracted in 2008, whereas the Security Council resolution was passed in 2010. However, as reported on the web-based outlet Mianeh, "this argument was redundant as the relevant UN resolution was passed in 2007, not 2010".
Gambian President Jammeh has so far refused to take responsibility for the cache of weapons. It is, however, self-evident that the purchase of grenades and explosives cannot be explained for Gambia's internal security reasons.
Gambia's neighbor, Senegal, immediately worried about the arms shipment. Dakar feared that, given the Gambian President's alleged relation with Senegal's Southern rebels, the weapons could have ended up in their hands. Senegalese authorities therefore asked Iran to give a clear explanation, as they had reason to think that the final user of the shipment was the "Mouvement des forces Démocratiques de Casamance" [MFDC], a separatist movement in southern Senegal that has been waging a low-level insurgency for independence since the 1980s.
These fears were confirmed when the Senegalese government declared it had evidence that the MFDC rebels were in possession of Iranian weapons. Last February 2011, an outbreak of renewed violence sparked in Senegal's region of Casamance causing the killing of three Senegalese soldiers and wounding another six. The report presented by the Senegalese army chief of staff on the developments in Casamance clearly showed that the MFDC was using sophisticated Iranian arms that had caused the death of Senegalese soldiers. "Senegal is outraged to see that Iranian bullets caused the death of Senegalese soldiers. Therefore, Senegal has decided to sever its diplomatic ties with the Republic of Iran," the Senegalese Foreign Minister, Madické Niang, announced on state television.
Senegal cuts relations with Iran
On February 23, 2011, Senegal decided officially to break diplomatic relations with Iran. In December 2010, Senegal had temporarily recalled its ambassador to Tehran. The cut of diplomatic relations was criticized by the Iranian government; Iranian Foreign Ministry called Senegal's "unjustified and illogical."
After mediation conducted by Turkey, however, Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade met with Iranian FM Ali Akbar Saheli, Ahmadinejad's man, and authorized the return of its ambassador to Iran. The normalization of relations was accompanied by a cooperation agreement of $100 million between the two countries. However, when the government found out in February that the three Senegalese soldiers have been killed by Iranian weapons, Dakar decided not to normalize anymore relations and cut definitely diplomatic relations with Teheran.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry in a statement said there was no logical reason behind the cutting of ties; it seemed that Senegal has made the decision under foreign influence. The Foreign Ministry also mentioned that unspecified factors must have been behind Senegal's decision. According to the Iranian government, the weapons cache had been a misunderstanding that had nothing to do with the government. The Senegalese FM reasserted that his country could not maintain relations with a country that was working to destabilize it.
Senegal and Iran used to enjoy a good diplomatic and economic relationship. Ahmadinejad even stated that "countries like Iran, Brazil, Venezuela, Bolivia, Gambia and Senegal have the ability to establish a new world order." In 2002, Iran showed an interest in investing in Senegal, including the areas of phosphates, the modernization of railways and the revival of the Senegalese Chemical Industries (ICS). Four years later, the foundations of a car plant in Senegal's city of Thies, Seniran Auto, was launched: 60% of the plant was to be owned by Iran Khodro, 20% by the Senegalese government and 20% by private shareholders. According to the news agency, Afrik, however: "Seniran Auto remains the quintessential proof of an unsuccessful cooperation between Iran and Senegal. The company has, since its inception, sold about fifty cars to individuals. And by virtue of a taxi renewal operation launched by the government, the car company was able to sell 1000 cars".
Iran's handling of external relations with African countries resulted into a failure as Teheran managed to derail its relationship three West African states. As a result of the crisis, Gambia and Senegal cut diplomatic relationship with Iran, and Nigeria needs to stay on the alert. A few weeks after the seizure of the weapons' cargo, another cargo, containing 130 kilograms of concentrated heroin worth nearly $10 million, also originating from Iran and with Europe as its final destination, was intercepted in Lagos, Nigeria, by agents of the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency.
The Iranian government does not seem deterred by the misadventures, however, and seems to keep considering African countries strategically necessary to enable it to receive international support for its nuclear program. Iran's interest in Africa is to build a coalition that will stand up for its right to produce nuclear weapons -- as well as to create a block against "Western imperialism." The regime-run Fars News Agency writes: "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."