Senegal – Iran: From friendship to diplomatic war

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The Senegalese government officially severed diplomatic ties with the Islamic Republic of Iran on Wednesday. Dakar has accused Tehran of supplying arms to separatists in its Casamance province. Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won’t be sipping tea together at the same table…

It is a tug of war between Senegal and the Islamic Republic of Iran. “Senegal is outraged to see that Iranian bullets caused the death of Senegalese soldiers. Therefore, Senegal has decided to sever its diplomatic ties with the Republic of Iran,” Senegalese Minister of Foreign Affairs, Madické Niang, announced Tuesday night on state television. The break of diplomatic ties between Dakar and Tehran comes as renewed violence rocks Casamance, Senegal’s southern province where separatist rebels have been operating for nearly thirty years

Relations between the two countries have considerably deteriorated since October 31, 2010, after thirteen containers stuffed with arms including rocket launchers and grenades were discovered on a vessel from Iran in Nigeria. The ship was bound for Kanilai, the birthplace of the eccentric Gambian President Yahya Jammeh.

Concerned, Senegal asked Iran to give a clear explanation about the final destination of the arms shipment as well as the identities of the transporters of the cargo. Gambia, which forms a narrow enclave in Senegal, has always been suspected of supporting the Casamance rebellion, Mouvement des forces démocratiques de Casamance (MFDC).

In December, Senegal recalled its ambassador to Tehran. But following a mediation conducted by Turkey, President Abdoulaye Wade met with Ali Akbar Saheli, then the Acting Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs, and later authorized the return of its ambassador to Iran. The normalization of relations was strategically accompanied by a US $ 100 million cooperation agreement between the two countries.

Looking East

Abdoulaye Wade who was installed as president of the West African nation in 2000 was disappointed by the Americans and started looking eastwards, especially the Gulf countries including Iran. Yasked with the organization of the summit of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), Senegal sought to take advantage of the opportunity to develop its infrastructure at a lower cost. And diplomatically isolated, the Islamic Republic wanted to extend its influence in Africa as it desperately sought international political support. The Dakar-Tehran axis looked promising.

During Abdoulaye Wade’s visit to Tehran in 2002, Iran showed great interest to invest in major projects in Senegal, including the exploitation of phosphates, modernization of railways and the revival of the Senegalese Chemical Industries (ICS). During that visit, Wade visited the Iran Khodro car plant. Four years later, the foundations of a car plant in Thies, Seniran Auto, was laid. 60% of the plant was to be owned by Iran Khodro, 20% by the Senegalese government and 20% by private shareholders.

“Friend of Tehran,” Abdoulaye Wade wanted to make Iran a privileged partner. In 2006, faced with an unprecedented energy crisis, Wade called his Iranian friends to the rescue. It was time for the Iranians to prove their worth in times of need. Numerous projects were to be embarked upon: The purchase of crude oil at unprecedented rock-bottom prices; A partnership between the National Iranian Oil Refining and Distribution Company (NIORDC) and the Société Africaine de Raffinage (SAR); The construction of a mega oil tank farm. Projects that looked good on paper, but were never to see the light of day …

Diplomatic games

Without holding a single grudge, Gorgui (“the old man” in Wolof) continued to play seductive games with Iran whilst defending the controversial Iran nuclear program. During a stopover visit by his counterpart in 2009, Abdoulaye Wade declared: “as long as Iran defends its freedom and independence, Senegal will remain at her side.” Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in return congratulated him and said that “countries like Iran, Brazil, Venezuela, Bolivia, Gambia and Senegal have the ability to establish a new world order”.

Hungry to forge the image of a “wise” man for himself on the international scene, Wade expertly sold the image of Senegal as a democratic Sub-Saharan country with a 95% Muslim population supported by both France and the United States. Those arguments allowed him to maintain a close relationship with Iran while pledging loyalty to his American allies. An incomprehensible diplomatic gimmick denounced by his critics.

In May 2010, the Senegalese president claimed credit for the liberation of a French woman, Miss Reiss, who had been accused of espionage by the Mullah regime and held for ten months in Iran. Frustrated by President Sarkozy’s lack of recognition, President Wade told the media that Miss Reiss could have been released six months earlier.

Today, despite the rhetoric, Seniran Auto remains the quintessential proof of an unsuccessful cooperation between Iran and Senegal. The company has since its inception sold about fifty cars to individuals. And by virtue of a taxi renewal operation launched by the government, the car company was able to sell 1000 cars.

Notwithstanding promises that Seniran Auto’s car engines would consume very little fuel… the opposite was the case. Angered by the false promise, taxi operators protested and finally obtained a compensation. Iranian promises in Senegal could not stand the test of time …

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