Tehran (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Boycotted by many countries for its nuclear programme and alleged support for Islamic terrorism, Iran is busy in Africa in terms of trade and aid. Iran’s African push is favoured by the presence of many predominantly Muslim nations in the African continent and Tehran’s willingness to chart its own course in line with the ideals of the Non-Aligned Movement, which still resonated among many Africans.
Iran’s actions are telling. In February 2008, Tehran offered to mediate a solution to the border dispute between Chad and Sudan, its closest ally in Africa.
In April 2009, an Iranian delegation attended the Somalia donor conference in Brussels hosted by the European Union and co-sponsored by the United Nations and the African Union.
Iranian religious foundations have established close ties with Shia minorities in countries such as Senegal and Nigeria, whilst Iranian Shia groups have maintained friendly contacts with their Sunni counterparts, who comprise the majority of African Muslims. Similarly, Tehran has hosted African students to study Islam.
Trade is also in rapid expansion. In 2007, for example, Iran's largest automobile manufacturer Khodro inaugurated a production plant in Senegal. In that same year, Khodro agreed to a US$ 2 billion deal to furnish Gambia with buses and heavy commercial vehicles.
In 2008, Iran committed to share nuclear technology with Nigeria to expand the latter’s capacity to generate electricity.
In 2010, it inked a number of agreements with the Central African Republic and Tanzania to support local agriculture and critical infrastructure projects.
Iran and Kenya also broached the possibility of establishing a free-trade agreement following talks in October 2010.
On 14-15 September last year, the Islamic Republic hosted a two-day Iran-Africa summit in Tehran. The event brought heads of state, diplomats, business leaders and cultural representatives from over 40 African nations (pictured) to Iran to discuss a range of issues.
On that occasion, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad praised ties with Africa, hoping for a world order based on "respect for nations' rights and dignity" and greater cooperation that would bring “a bright future for humankind".
Ahmadinejad's travel schedule has taken him to Senegal, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Mali, Nigeria, Djibouti, Comoros, Kenya, Sudan, Algeria and Gambia.
Iran has also dispatched ministerial-level delegations to cement ties with other key countries on the continent, including South Africa, Angola and Ghana.
Africa is in great need for aid and investments, something that Iran can provide. However, Tehran has made a number of faux pas, for example, when Nigerian customs authorities announced on 26 October 2010 that they had impounded weapons from an Iranian ship valued at around US$ 20 million.
Nigeria charged two Iranian men they accuse of belonging to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, the Islamic Republic's pre-eminent military and intelligence force, with trying to ship the weapons to the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta.
When then Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki acknowledged the delivery, but said they “were destined for another West African country”, observers immediately thought he was referring to the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MDFC), a rebel group fighting for independence from Senegal, and that the weapons might travel through The Gambia to reach their destination.
Although both Senegal and The Gambia are predominantly Muslim countries, neither was pleased at the turn of events. Gambia reacted by cutting relations with Iran in November. Senegal followed suit by recalling its ambassador to Tehran in December. For its part, Iran accused hostile intelligence services of trying to frame it.
Despite such irritants and Tehran’s inability to compete with giants like China or the United States, Iran can still carve for itself a space in Africa to get around international sanctions.