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Iran Dealt Losing Hand In Gambia Gambit

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad (right) and Gambian President Yahya Jammeh in Tehran in December 2006
As enemies go, it is hardly in the realm of the Great Satan.

Yet the tiny West African republic of Gambia has just added its name to an exclusive club whose other members have more obvious reasons for enmity toward Tehran.

In a move few saw coming, the country suddenly announced on November 23 that it was cutting economic ties with Iran and gave Iranian officials 48 hours to leave. The announcement heralds an end to several Iranian-funded projects, including a $2 billion agreement to provide heavy and commercial vehicles.

No explanation was given, but the decision appeared to be linked to Nigeria's interception in October of an Iranian arms cache that officials said was destined for Gambia.

The shipment's discovery has already caused tensions between Iran and Nigeria, with Lagos reluctant to accept the protestations of Manuchehr Mottaki, the Iranian foreign minister, that a private company had been behind the arms transaction. Nigeria reported the incident to the UN Security Council amid suggestions that the shipment could be in breach of sanctions passed against Iran over its nuclear program.

Iran's diplomatic embarrassment intensified when Nigerian officials announced on November 19 that $10 million of heroin hidden in engine parts shipped from Iran had been seized at Lagos airport.

Warm Relations

Why Iran would be shipping arms to Gambia is unclear. The Iranian president, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, has cultivated warm relations with his Gambian counterpart, Yahya Jammeh, and has visited the country twice, in 2006 and 2009. Jammeh visited Tehran in 2006.

What is obvious is that the episode has been a diplomatic calamity, with Mottaki and the Iranian Foreign Ministry apparently blindsided by other elements in the Islamic regime.

Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born analyst with the Middle East Economic and Political Analysis Company (MEEPAS) in Israel, believes Mottaki was left exposed by a botched operation run by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) of which he had no prior knowledge.

"I think this is an operation which has gone wrong on two fronts," says Javedanfar. "From the revelation, we can see there is a strong possibility that a Western intelligence agency has infiltrated Iran's operation and tipped off the Nigerians about this weapons shipment.

And No. 2, it shows that there is a serious difference between the IRGC's leadership, especially the Al-Quds force, and the Iranian Foreign Ministry, because Manuchehr Mottaki went to extraordinary lengths to patch up the recent differences with Nigeria -- to patch up differences and to improve relations. However, the IRGC did not help one bit. They just stonewalled and Mottaki couldn't answer the questions the Nigerians were asking him."

'Vying For Power'

Theories abound as to why mainly Shi'ite Iran should be interested in sending arms to Gambia, whose population of 1.5 million is 90 percent Sunni Muslim.

Alaeddin Borujerdi, head of the foreign-policy committee in Iran's parliament, said an "Iranian company" had struck an agreement to sell arms to Gambia several years ago and that the cache was sent "under international law." Gambia's decision to sever ties was made under pressure from the United States, he said, but would have little effect because Iran's diplomatic involvement there did not even amount to having an embassy.

However, Scott Lucas, editor of the Enduring America website and an Iran analyst at Birmingham University in the United Kingdom, says the arms may have been linked to a failed 2009 attempt to overthrow Jammeh, who himself came to power through a coup in 1994.

"Since the recent coup in Gambia, there have been factions vying for power," argues Lucas. "It is unclear to whom the arms were to be sent, but it is likely to be one of those factions.

"A former diplomat from Gambia has pointed a finger at the president," Lucas continues. "However, he may have political reasons for doing so, as he was put on the outside by the recent coup. There are other possibilities that a faction within the government, which may be making its own moves for power, was to receive the arms."

As to who might have provided these arms, Lucas also suspects Revolutionary Guards involvement: "The most likely explanation is that they had come from a faction within the Iranian government, in or connected to the Revolutionary Guards."

Gaza Bound?

The cache's initial disclosure prompted fevered speculation in Israel that the weapons -- including rockets and explosives -- may have been ultimately destined for Gaza, which is run by the Islamist group Hamas, supported by Iran.

However, analysts dismiss that suggestion. Supplying Gaza by way of western Africa would vastly increase a shipment's fuel costs, as well as its chances of being intercepted, they say.

Instead, likely motivations range from financial gain to buying political influence to gaining strategic influence through access to Africa's coastal waters.

Javedanfar says Iran has tried to cultivate ties with African countries with strategic waterways, possibly to give it the means of making retaliatory strikes against Western interests in the event of an armed conflict.

"One of the linchpins of Iran's Africa policy has been to try and improve relations with countries that have coasts on the important waterways," says Javedanfar, who points out that Gambia is wedged between Senegal on the Atlantic coast.

"This would be an important attraction to the Iranians. It would certainly add to Gambia's strategic value. There is also the fact that it is close to Senegal, which is an important Iranian ally. Any country that has access to important waterways and has important relations with Iran could later on be used to pressure the U.S. and to help Iran expand its influence in Africa."

Lucas, however, dismisses any notion of Iran trying to get a military foothold in Africa. More likely, he says, is that someone inside the regime saw in Gambia the ideal opportunity to make money from the continent's lucrative arms trade.

"[Cultivating links] at a general level would be just establishing ties, good relations with various factions in Gambia," he says. "But rather than go to that macro level, I would say it's more likely that someone within the Iranian government was looking to make a specific profit out of the arms deal and to build up links with a specific faction within Gambia rather than build up high-level economic interest."