Middle East

Ahmadinejad's last Africa tour tries to cement ties

2011 - Ahmadinejad on a visit to Khatroum, Sudan Image copyright AFP
Image caption In 2011 Israel is alleged to have bombed what may have been an Iranian arms factory in Sudan

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is visiting three African countries on his final foreign tour before he is obliged to relinquish the presidency after two terms.

It is not a surprising choice of destination. During his eight-year presidency he has actively sought to expand the list of African and Latin American countries with which Iran has close diplomatic relations.

Strengthening ties with developing countries has always been a priority for the Islamic Republic, and Mr Ahamdinejad's first official meeting with a head of state was with the president of Mali only days after winning the election in June 2005.

Analysts say there are both practical diplomatic and ideological reasons for Mr Ahmadinejad's enthusiasm for this policy.

As pressure from the international community increased and the effects of economic sanctions were increasingly felt, Iran needed friends, not least to bolster support for Iran at the United Nations.

This objective was not easily accomplished due to the dependence of so many developing countries on aid from the United States and international lending agencies influenced by the US and its allies.

Getting poorer countries to abstain in UN votes involving Iran was often all he could realistically hope for.

Exporting revolution

On the ideological front, one of the stated aims of the Islamic Revolution of 1979 was the export of Islamic revolution around the world.

Africa, with its large Muslim populations dotted around the continent, was seen as a good target for this kind of revolutionary fervour.

Nigeria's Sheikh Zakzaky, leader of the Shia Islamic movement of Nigeria, became a proponent of Shia Islam around the time of the Iranian revolution.

Though Mr Zakzaky denies that he has received any funding from Iran, this fiercely anti-American cleric hangs a photo of the leader of the Iranian revolution Ayatollah Khomeini prominently in his office.

In the summer of 2008, President Ahmadinejad received then Comoros President Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi in Tehran.

A Sunni cleric, Mr Sambi studied Islamic political theory in the Shia seminaries of the Iranian city of Qom and was a student of one of Mr Ahmadinejad's religious mentors. Mr Sambi was known as the "Ayatollah", an official Shia title.

During Mr Ahmadinejad's presidency, Iran's trade and economic ties expanded rapidly. Earlier this year Iran reported that its annual non-oil trade with Africa had reached $1bn.

One example of major Iranian investment in Africa came in 2007 with the opening by Iran's largest automobile manufacturer of a production plant in Senegal.

Arms making?

However, in addition to religious and economic interests, Iran may also have other goals in its dealings with Africa. There are reports that in the name of trade, Iran is trying to breach international sanctions.

More than two years ago, Nigeria reported the seizure of an Iranian arms shipment in the port of Lagos. Nigeria said the arms were destined for The Gambia, in West Africa.

A month later without any explanation, The Gambia cut all diplomatic relations with Iran.

Last year, the Sudanese government accused Israel of bombing an arms factory on its territory. Israel neither admitted to nor denied the action, but Sudanese sources said the arms factory was believed to have been operated by Iranians to supply weapons to Hamas in Gaza. Iran has never commented on the issue.

Though Iran has made progress in improving its relationships with many developing countries, analysts say it has hardly made a dent in the influence of the United States.

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