BANJUL, Gambia — Beyond the sleepy, Connecticut-sized nation he governs, Gambian President Sheikh Alhaji Yahya Abdul Azziz Jemus Junkung Jammeh is internationally known as something between a walking human rights concern — he once swore to “cut off the head” of every gay Gambian — and a farce: He markets a banana leaf-based “Presidential Cure for AIDS,” and boasts a litany of dubious honorifics, including his “Award of Admiral in the Navy of the Great [landlocked] State of Nebraska.”
But for the Islamic Republic of Iran — a geopolitically isolated administration that needs friends wherever it can find them — Jammeh represented a $2 billion investment in diplomatic aid since Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office in 2005.
In retrospect, it was never a sure investment.
While the United Nations imposes a fourth round of sanctions against the Tehran government, Ahmadinejad’s foreign affairs ministry has been wooing Africa’s dictators, democrats and diplomats alike in a full-scale charm offensive that was going well — until a bizarre shipment washed ashore in Lagos, Nigeria.
From Africa, Iran seeks uncompetitive markets for its industrial goods and unmonitored ports for its shipping lanes, analysts say. From Africa’s leaders, Iran hopes to engender south-south solidarity whenever the next referendum on the country’s nuclear program preoccupies the United Nations General Assembly.
Iran’s Africa courtship for Africa's unclaimed U.N. votes and uncompetitive markets was blossoming into a full-blown romance — until Nigerian police caught the country smuggling guns through the continent’s ports.
For a while the Iranians made headway in Africa. Until that 13-container cargo of Iranian guns wound up at Nigeria’s customs desk, sparking an African backlash to Ahmadinejad’s maneuvers.
“The head of state [Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade] has affirmed his support for Iran in its struggle to fight against the proliferation of nuclear weapons,” trumpeted a Senegalese government memo in November 2009, after Wade returned from his fourth visit to Tehran.
The Senegalese president’s unlikely endorsement for Iran’s nuclear program — which echoed Ahmadinejad’s argument that America, not Iran, is the world’s chief nuclear proliferator — joined the endorsements of Eritrea’s President Isaias Afewerki and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, who called Iran’s nuclear ambitions “a just cause.”
Wade’s support came just weeks after the United States gifted Senegal a $540 million aid package.
But while President Barack Obama’s administration grants tightly-regulated aid, Ahmadinejad’s has been funding car factories and oil refineries on the continent, sharing African ports, financing Shi’a universities, and hosting regular summits to fete Africa’s top dignitaries in Tehran.
“Iran is replicating what the Soviet Union did in Africa, and that is trying to create its own political and economic bloc against the West,” Tel Aviv-based Middle East analyst Meir Javendanfar said. “They’re trying to be a player, and Africa is a big part of their plan.”
But those are just the parts of the plan it publicizes.
On Halloween, when Nigerian customs agents pried open one of the containers passing through Lagos port, they found an armory of rocket launchers, grenades, mortars, heavy explosives and guns — thousands of guns — all headed to a Gambian plantation owned by none other than President Jammeh.
Three weeks later, Gambia’s leader severed ties with Iran, canceled Iran’s Gambian projects, closed Iran’s Gambian embassies and gave Iranian diplomats 48 hours to get out of his country.
For analysts, the move was interpreted as a gesture by the Gambian leader to save face, to deflect questions about why a head of state would be mail-ordering 13 containers worth of guns, or to reposition Gambia for more U.S. aid in anticipation of anti-Iran hawks in the U.S. Republican party taking over congressional committee chairs.
But three weeks later, on Dec. 12, Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Manouchehr Mottaki found himself singing damage control to outraged officials in neighboring Senegal, concerned about why — and to whom — the Iranian government would be floating an arsenal across its waterways.
“The Republic of Senegal, true to the needs for peace and security to guide relationships between nation-states, and estimating that the Iranian government’s explanations for this affair have not been sufficient, has decided to recall its ambassador to Tehran, effective this very day,” Senegal’s Foreign Affairs Minister announced the next day.
Mottaki was fired, replaced by Iran's energy minister before he even checked out of his Senegalese hotel.
“This is a big test for U.S. influence in Africa,” said Researcher Alex Vines at the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London, a global affairs think tank.
Even with a president boasting African roots, America’s pre-eminence on the continent is being complicated by a new world economy.
For centuries, the continent remained its own isolated geopolitical sphere reserved for European adventurists and later cold war-era spies. But since 2000, Africa’s 53 nations have enjoyed an influx of interest, trade and aid from non-traditional partners like Brazil, India, Canada, Turkey — and above all, China, whose commerce with the continent bloomed ten-fold since the break of the new millennium.
But while visions of Africa’s youth mastering Mandarin or queuing for Turkish green cards may seem like healthy competition for the world’s last superpower, Iran poses a more direct challenge to America’s hegemony, analysts say.
Vines called Iran’s Africa strategy “a migraine” for the U.S. State Department.
“Iran’s success will depend on the importance of U.S. aid and influence to the individual countries they are courting,” he said.