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Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Iran builds a terror network in Africa

I've reported several times on this blog about Iran's and Hezbullah's operations in Latin America and in the Republic of Sudan (also here and here). But Iran has also made inroads all across Africa that have contributed significantly to its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Iran’s experiences in Sudan demonstrate how traditional diplomacy is subordinated to the Islamic Republic’s boarder, asymmetrical goals. Sudan’s Islamist National Congress Party (NCP)-led government signed a military cooperation agreement with Iran in 2008; according to The Telegraph, the IRGC maintained a base in Al Fashr, Darfur, as recently as September of 2011. The Conflict Armaments Research report strongly suggests that Iranian ammunition was used in at least some of the atrocities committed by Khartoum-allied militias during the conflict in Darfur, and that Sudan was a transit point for Iranian ammunition that eventually made its way to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, on the other side of Africa.
This relationship is widely resented within Sudan itself. A significant faction within Sudan’s notoriously divided regime is set against a continued relationship with Iran, and in November of last year, foreign minister Ali Karti spoke out against the docking of Iranian warships in the Red Sea city of Port Sudan. According to one East Africa-based analyst who works frequently in Khartoum, the Sudanese government views its alliance with Iran as purely opportunistic. “It’s a very self-interested relationship,” he says. “In its propaganda, the NCP will talk about the infidel west, the Zionists, the communists, the atheists — and they will put the Shia in that list as well.”
For many Sudanese, the Yarmouk incident only demonstrated the cost of Sudan’s conscription into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by its Iranian allies—a conflict which has nothing to do with Sudan’s own already-shaky internal affairs. “A lot of Sudanese are very upset, but not at the actual Israeli strike,” the analyst said. “They’re upset about the fact that the government is involving themselves in something that’s a lot bigger than what Sudan can handle.” Amongst some of Sudan’s leaders, and a significant part of its populace, Iran is an unwelcome ally. Even a fellow pariah state — truly an ally of last resort—harbors little real enthusiasm for the Islamic Republic and its policies.
But Iran has gotten exactly what it needs out of Sudan, regardless of how facile and opportunistic the ties between the two countries really are. Sudan is a beachhead for the IRGC — a transit point for weaponry that allows Hezbollah to aid in the Assad regime’s survival, and Hamas to rain Fajr 5s on the majority of Israel’s civilian population. It doesn’t matter that Sudanese resent the bombing of their capital city, or that Sudan is under international sanctions, or that Iran’s relationship with such a problematic country is liable to deepen perceptions of the Islamic Republic’s international isolation. All across the continent, Iran’s expansionist foreign policy is in direct conflict with its economic and soft power outreach—and Iran has succeeded is using Africa to advance its interests anyway.
South Africa, for instance, seems at first glance like a signal Iranian failure. Africa’s largest economy has totally caved to American and E.U. pressure on Iranian oil purchases, even despite the traditionally left-leaning foreign policy of the ruling African National Congress. In early June, the country’s Department of Energy announced that it had totally cut off its oil trade with Iran, and Trevor Houser of the Rhodium Group, which tracks the effects of sanctions on Iran’s oil sales, confirmed by email that “South African customs has not recorded any oil imports from Iran for several months now.”
Iran’s oil trade with South Africa has evaporated, but the Islamic Republic scored a crucial consolation prize: a major investment from South African cell phone giant MTN, along with a raft of favors from the South African government. According to a civil complaint filed in District of Columbia federal court, MTN elbowed Turkcell, a Turkish competitor, out of a 49% stake in an Iranian joint venture called Irancell by “promising Iran that MTN could deliver South Africa’s vote at the International Atomic Energy Agency, promising Iran defense equipment otherwise prohibited by national and international laws, and the outright bribery of high-level government officials in both Iran and South Africa.”
The suit alleges that between 2003 and 2005, MTN won its Iranian license through a series of lucrative kickbacks. These consisted of straightforward bribes paid to Iranian officials, although the suit presents strong evidence that South Africa’s pro-Iran votes at the IAEA between 2005 and 2008 were a quid pro quo for the Islamic Republic’s approval of MTN’s Irancell investment. The complaint boasted over 60 pages of documentation, including damning internal emails leaked by an employee at MTN’s Tehran offices. It goes into specific detail about vehicles and military equipment the South Africans would provide to Iran if MTN were awarded the Irancell stake, a list which included “Rooivalk helicopters (based on the U.S. Apache platform), frequency hopping encrypted military radios, sniper rifles, G5 howitzers, canons…and other defense articles.” (The weapons were never delivered, and the Turkcell case was withdrawn in May of 2013–but only because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled a month earlier that international corporate civil suits could no longer be tried in U.S. court).
The scandal has resulted in no criminal prosecutions in South Africa. MTN still owns nearly half of Irancell, an arrangement that nets the company over $117 million a year. Irancell’s Iranian owner is a holding company whose investors include Iran Electronics Industries, a government-connected electronics and defense company that has been under U.S. sanctions since September of 2008. Iran and the IRGC are still leveraging their relationship with South Africa, even after the collapse of the companies’ oil trade. And according to Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the country is “a very hospitable place for Iranian sanctions-busting.” In early June, the U.S. Treasury Department added 37 Iranian front companies to its sanctions list. Three were based in South Africa.
This pattern—in which Iran scrapes for asymmetrical gains within a challenging diplomatic environment, and in spite of its own internally divided conventional diplomacy—repeated itself in Nigeria. In October of 2010, Nigerian authorities scored the largest seizure of an Iranian weapons shipment in African history, when a container ship carrying crates of rocket launchers and heavy mortars was impounded in the port of Lagos. This embarrassment hardly ended Iran’s efforts in the country. In June of 2013, a Hezbollah cell was uncovered in the northern Nigerian city of Kano. And Iran has an asset in Nigeria that’s arguably more valuable than a foothold for its Lebanese proxies: Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky, a radical Iranian-trained Shi’ite cleric and a promoter of Iranian state ideology in Sub-Saharan Africa’s most populous country.

But perhaps the most startling Iranian success in Africa has to do with its pursuit of the ultimate asymmetrical objective: a nuclear weapons capability. Robert Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe inked a uranium agreement with Iran in 2011, and Ahmadinejad visited Niger, the world’s fourth-largest uranium producer, late in his second term as the Islamic Republic’s president. A 2006 Wikileaks cable asserts that Iran had smuggled Congolese uranium through ports in Tanzania. As for Tanzania—its government has proven remarkably tolerant of Iranian tankers operating under Tanzanian registration in order to evade the oil sanctions regime. Tanzania is a close enough U.S. ally to warrant a visit from Barack Obama during his July, 2013 trip to Africa. Iran can get what it needs even from African countries with established, pro-western bona fides—and despite an almost total absence of real friends in the continent.

As with its nuclear program, Iran has found its way around the obstructions that diplomacy and statecraft are constantly throwing in its path. Despite the pinch of international sanctions, and setbacks like the Stuxnet computer virus, Iran has increased the number of its operating uranium centrifuges, along with its stockpile of fissile material. Thanks to diplomatic stalling tactics, like the ones perfected by Iranian president-elect and former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani, and its patient, decades-long accumulation of nuclear components, Iran has steadily progressed towards a nuclear weapons capability —even in the face of a nearly-global effort at derailing them.
Read the whole thing.

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