DAKAR (Somalilandpress) — Iran’s proclaimed ambitions in Africa are particularly worrying for Israel, which once had a lot of friends on the continent and wants to keep the few that remain.
ARRIVING at the airport in Senegal’s capital, Dakar, you have a fair chance that the newish-looking taxi taking you into town will not be the usual French or Japanese model, but Iranian. And it will not have been imported, as most cars in Africa are, but assembled in nearby Thiès. From here, the first few hundred taxis have just come off the production line at an Iranian-built Khodro plant. They are tangible symbols of a new power in sub-Saharan Africa that has, for some, begun to cause ripples of concern.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s controversial president, is in the vanguard of Iran’s push. Two years ago in New York he said he saw “no limits to the expansion of [Iran’s] ties with African countries”. Last year Iran’s diplomats, generals and president criss-crossed the continent, signing a bewildering array of commercial, diplomatic and defence deals. By one tally, Iran conducted 20 ministerial or grander visits to Africa last year, reminiscent of the trade-and-aid whirlwind the Chinese brought to Africa in the mid-2000s.
The reason is not hard to fathom. Iran wants diplomatic support for its nuclear programme in parts of the world where governments are still biddable. In Latin America Iran’s president has already exploited anti-American sentiment in countries such as Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela. In Africa, by contrast, where most countries have strong ties to the West, Iran has concentrated on strengthening Muslim allegiances with offers of oil and aid.
Take Senegal, a 95%-Muslim country. Though poor and quite small in population, it carries diplomatic weight in Francophone Africa and influence at the UN, where quite a few African governments look to it for a lead on some big votes. So Iran has been bombarding it with goodwill. As well as the Khodro car factory, the Iranians have promised to build tractors, an oil refinery and a chemical plant, as well as to provide a lot of cheap oil.
Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade has gratefully accepted this bounty, in return paying four official visits to Iran. In November he hosted Mr Ahmadinejad in Senegal, publicly assuring him that he endorsed Iran’s right to nuclear power—and accepted that this was for peaceful purposes only. A happy Iranian president also visited neighbouring Gambia, a smaller country with a nasty authoritarian regime—and a UN vote. Also in west Africa, Iran has been pushing into Mauritania and has tightened its links with Nigeria.
In east Africa Iran has helped turn Sudan, another mainly Muslim country, into—by some counts—Africa’s third-biggest arms maker; in 2008 the two signed a military co-operation accord.
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Iran has also been cultivating some less likely allies in the region. Last year Mr Ahmadinejad visited mainly Christian Kenya, being joyously welcomed in the port of Mombasa, on the Muslim-inhabited coast. He struck a deal to export 4m tonnes of crude oil to Kenya a year, to open direct flights between Tehran and Nairobi, the two capitals, and to give scholarships for study in Iran. Wherever Iran has embassies it also sets up cultural centres. Iran has been trying to use its oil to get into Uganda too. On a recent visit to Iran, Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, tantalised his hosts by hinting that they might consider building a refinery and pipeline for Uganda’s recently discovered oil.
Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, has been courted too, along with sub-Saharan Africa’s diplomatic and economic giant, South Africa, whose ruling African National Congress has long shared Iran’s support for the Palestinians against Israel. Iran has for many years supplied South Africa with a lot of oil. But economic ties have tightened. Private South African companies are investing heavily in Iran. For instance, MTN, a mobile-phone company invested $1.5 billion-plus in Iran in 2007-08 to provide coverage for more than 40% of Iranians. In return, South Africa has been one of Iran’s doughtiest supporters at the UN, abstaining on a resolution to condemn Iran’s human-rights violations and arguing against further embargoes and sanctions over Iran’s nuclear plans.
Yet the amount of aid that Iran gives Africa is still small compared with the sums Americans and Europeans give, let alone China. It is doubtful that countries such as Senegal would jeopardise aid links with the West by becoming too cosy with Iran. And sometimes there is more Iranian talk than action. Kenya’s direct flights to Tehran have yet to happen. Khodro is producing only half the number of taxis promised. It may be hard for Shia Iran to influence Africa’s predominantly Sunni Muslims.
Can the Jewish state recover ground?
All the same, Israel is rattled. Its diplomatic links are fewer and frailer than before—and Iran is doing its best to shred even these. Last year Mauritania, one of the few Arab League countries to have diplomatic relations with Israel, told it to close its embassy. After Iran’s foreign minister visited the country, Iran said it would take over a hospital that Israel had been building in the capital, Nouakchott, adding that it would provide more doctors and equipment than Israel had promised. In Senegal the Israelis had offered to help the notable Sufi Muslim town of Touba to build a water and sewage system. But negotiations were abruptly broken off at an advanced stage, after Iran promised to carry out the same work—and give a bigger donation to the town as well as the water pumps.
Lebanon’s rich and influential diaspora also comes into the game. In Congo, Guinea and Senegal, among other countries, the Shia Lebanese party-cum-militia, Hizbullah, which Iran helps sponsor, collects a lot cash from its co-religionists, while spreading the Iranian word.
As a result of Iran’s African activity, Israel is trying to push back into the continent, where it had strong ties in the 1950 and 1960s. But many countries cut them after the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973, and again when the first Palestinian intifada (uprising) began in the late 1980s. In September Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, made Israel’s first high-level mission to Africa for decades, visiting Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda. Countering Iran’s influence was plainly one reason behind the trip.
Many African governments still crave Israeli expertise for projects such as irrigation, but they are also after military and intelligence technology. Security-minded Ethiopia, confronting Islamist militias backed by nearby rebels in Somalia, has become Israel’s closest continental ally and a big buyer of defence equipment. Kenya, also worried about Islamist fighters operating in next-door Somalia, has long been receptive to Israel’s blandishments. In west Africa, Nigeria may have spent as much as $500m on Israeli arms, including drones, in the past few years.
Mr Lieberman may tour Africa again this year. Israel is particularly worried by Iran’s eagerness to warm relations with Sudan and Eritrea, a strategic spot on the Red Sea that could threaten Israeli shipping. Eritrea also arms the fervently anti-Israeli Somali jihadists. Sudan may already serve as a conduit for Iranian weapons to Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group that Iran backs, and to Hizbullah. A year ago Israeli aircraft destroyed a convoy in eastern Sudan that it said was carrying Iranian arms to Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Source: The Economist, 4th February 2010, DAKAR and NAIROBI