Reuters: The seizure of weapons from Iran in a Nigerian port, a stand-off with suspects holed up in an embassy and a paper trail leading to the farm of a West African leader bear the hallmarks of a great thriller.
By David Lewis
ABIDJAN, Dec 2 (Reuters) – The seizure of weapons from Iran in a Nigerian port, a stand-off with suspects holed up in an embassy and a paper trail leading to the farm of a West African leader bear the hallmarks of a great thriller.
But the still-unfolding incident also raising troubling questions about the way Iran does business in Africa and could scare nations away from its quest for closer trade ties and for allies in the international dispute over its nuclear programme.
“I think this will make some countries quite wary … of strong relations with Iran,” said Sanam Vakil, an Iran expert and adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University.
“It is only just going to increase pressure on them,” she said of efforts within the U.N. Security Council to curtail Iranian nuclear work seen in the West as a bid to acquire the atom bomb, and broader concern over Iran’s international role.
Those concerns came to the fore in Africa last year when Israel bombed a convoy of Iranian weapons in Sudan which, according to media reports citing U.S. officials, were destined for Palestinian group Hamas in Gaza.
The October seizure in Lagos port of 13 containers full of weapons prompted two Iranians to seek refuge in Iran’s embassy in the capital Abuja. Diplomats and security sources identified the two as members of Iran’s al Quds force, the part of its Revolutionary Guard charged with foreign operations.
Analysts have long suspected an al Quds presence alongside public Iranian activities but evidence of state involvement in arms shipments is likely to unnerve many in a region seeking stability and investment after years of chaos and conflict.
“It is very worrying for Africa. I think governments will become very much more circumspect with Iranian activities,” said Rolake Akinola, Africa analyst at Eurasia Group.
Tehran, which sent its foreign minister to Nigeria over the matter, put the incident down to a misunderstanding. The arms — which included 107-mm rockets — belonged to a private firm making a legitimate shipment to a West African nation, it said.
But that did not stop Nigeria reporting Iran to the United Nations Security Council for a possible violation of a U.N. arms embargo and charging one of the men, whom court papers identified as a member of the Revolutionary Guard.
Gambia — the next country of destination for the arms — abruptly severed all ties with Iran. No reason was given but foreign ministry officials said it was linked to the shipment.
A tiny country reliant on tourism, Gambia has hosted President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on a number of visits. It had a programme of economic, agricultural and security ties with Tehran mirrored by other nations in the region.
“It (the seizure) has taken out one of Iran’s main operating platforms in West Africa. For them it is a pretty big loss,” said one source with knowledge of al Quds.
The source suggested that, in return for receiving training for its presidential guard, Gambia allowed al Quds to operate out of the country, perhaps also to take advantage of a weak banking system and ties with Lebanese networks in West Africa.
Gambian opposition lawmakers have called for clarification on the issue but so far there has been none from the government. Diplomats say one of the al Quds force officers has managed to return to Iran while the other remains in Nigeria.
Iran’s embassy in Senegal oversees Gambia but didn’t respond to requests for comment. Iranian websites quoted leading parliamentarian Alaeddin Boroujerdi saying Gambia had been pressured by a U.S. wary of Iran’s growing influence in Africa.
Vakil noted that Washington has said very little publicly but the incident was likely to banked by foes of Iran seeking further evidence of the Islamic Republic’s untrustworthiness.
COST OF BUSINESS
There has been no confirmation of who the final intended user but a shipping document seen by Reuters named the farm of Gambian President Yahya Jammeh as the delivery address.
The shipping company would not comment and a Gambian presidency spokesman also declined to comment.
Underlining how the seizure has unnerved many in the region, one Senegalese security source said the weapons could have been destined for Senegalese rebels which Banjul has been accused of backing during years of prickly relations between the nations.
Other possible recipients include Nigerian militants. Israeli officials also said that Iran may have been testing out a new smuggling route to get weapons to Hamas Islamists in Gaza.
Another theory is that Iran may be stockpiling weapons for an asymmetrical strike on Western targets if it is attacked.
While the Gambian and Nigerian reactions underscore the concerns raised by the incident, some analysts doubt whether it will fundamentally change Iran’s tactics for winning influence abroad.
“African nations will learn that doing business with Iran will not bring benefits and comes with high costs,” said Mike Singh, a fellow at Harvard University.
“It certainly is embarrassing. But there aren’t sufficient consequences for them to change what they are doing.” (Editing by Mark John and Philippa Fletcher)