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Iran fails to win new African allies

Mysterious shipment of arms scuttles friendships with Gambia and Senegal.

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.

He failed.

“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.