Iranian diplomats were all smiles as they resumed ties with a rising African country at the 12th Islamic Summit in Cairo. The event on the evening of February 6th included a photo-op handshake and a signing ceremony, but the historic agreement Iran signed at Cairo’s Fairmont Hotel was signed not with Egypt–but with Senegal.
When Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi and his Senegalese cohort Monsieur Mankeur Ndiaye signed a pledge to increase ties between the two important Muslim states and re-exchange ambassadors, it marked the latest turn in an often-tumultuous Iranian-Senegalese relationship. In 2011, Senegal dramatically broke ties with Iran after claiming Senegalese rebels had been receiving Iranian weapons. Though Senegal pledged to maintain economic ties, the blow was damaging for Tehran. The timing of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) conference allowed for a personal meeting between Iranian President Ahmadinejad and Senegalese President Macky Sall, who was elected in 2012.
Following the ceremony, Mohammad Mahdi Akhondzadeh, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Legal and International Affairs, framed the importance of the meeting for The Diplomat: “Senegal is an important member of both the OIC and NAM. Iran is currently the chair of NAM…we have to work together and cooperate in building a safer, secure and more prosperous world. We have to work with countries like Senegal and Egypt on many issues including combating extremism.”
Senegalese diplomats suggested that Senegal’s Ambassador Mouhamadou Doudou Lo will likely head the new mission to Tehran. Doudou Lo spoke described the reestablishment of relations with Iran: “We reevaluated the situation with regard to Iran [at the Islamic Summit]; the Islamic Republic of Iran is, after all, a fellow OIC member country, and we now realize that it is the time for us to re-establish our relationship [with Iran] because we are moving in the same direction.”
Iranian diplomats declined to comment on the 2010 Senegalese allegations about arm-shipments, and Ambassador Doudou Lo also gave a decidedly diplomatic response when asked about the alleged flow of Iranian arms into Senegal. “We don’t want to look backward and on this issue… [from our perspective] it has been resolved. Now we are looking forward and hoping to develop a relationship within the framework of friendship, a forward-looking relationship with improved cooperation,” the Senegalese Ambassador explained.
The rapprochement comes as both countries have grown in importance in the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), the world’s two largest intergovernmental organizations after the United Nations. The 2008 Islamic Summit was held in Dakar. The Cairo Summit was delayed twice, and as a result Senegal had held the Presidency for an extraordinary 5 years. Iran hosted the 2012 Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran, and will continue to hold the presidency of that organization until 2015.
Iran views its relationship with Senegal as one of its most important in Africa. Despite being a country of just 12 million, Senegal punches above its weight in African and Islamic politics. Dakar was once the colonial capital of all-French West Africa, and many African nations still follow its lead. A 2006 BBC poll found Senegal’s population had the most positive view of Iranian influence among African nations. Senegal has twice hosted Islamic summits since the Summit was established in 1969. Iran and Egypt have each only hosted the Islamic Summit once.
The diplomatic breakthrough has just as much to do with Senegalese politics as Iranian. Iranian-Senegalese relations were brought to a halt in 2011 when Senegal claimed rebels in the Casamance region had received weapons from Tehran. In 1982, the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MDFC) launched an armed struggle for independence against the government of Senegal. In 2004, a peace agreement with Dakar was signed, but splinter factions of the MDFC continued the struggle. In October 2010, an escalation in violence resulted in some of the conflict’s bloodiest fighting when a dozen Senegalese soldiers were killed.
The discovery of thirteen containers full of weapons in Nigeria disguised as building material changed everything. The weapons–including small arms, rocket propelled grenades, and anti-aircraft ammunition–were supposedly destined for Gambia. Senegal concluded that the weapons had both originated in Iran and were intended for delivery to the MDFC. Iran dispatched Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki to Senegal in a visit perhaps designed to save Iranian-Senegalese relations. If so, it was a personal failure for Mottaki, who was fired while still on an official visit to Dakar. At the time, The New York Times speculated it had more to do with Iranian politics than Iranian foreign relations, yet, the sacking of a foreign minister while on an official mission was unprecedented.
For its part, Senegal recalled its ambassador from Tehran in December, only to send him back in January when Iran and Senegal signed agreements worth $200 million in economic cooperation.
Dakar subsequently revealed that at a February 19, 2011 meeting, Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi had admitted to President Wade that Iran had delivered arms to neighboring Gambia “several times”. Senegal immediately cut diplomatic ties with Iran (although the Casmache rebels continue to be heavily armed, according to recent reports). Under UN Sanctions, Iran is banned from trading in conventional arms.
Such dramatic swings have long been at the heart of the Iranian-Senegalese relationship. In 1984 Senegal’s President Abdou Diouf shut down the Iranian embassy in Dakar, only allowing it to re-open in the mid 1990s. In 2000, when President Abdoulaye Wade came to power, he sought to embrace Iran as a source of investment in the country. Indeed Ahmadinejad and Wade visited each other’s capitals frequently.
Symbolic of this relationship was a joint car factory launched between Senegal and Iran’s leading car manufacturer Khodro. The Iranians also agreed to build a tractor factory, and announced investment plans in Senegal’s oil and gas infrastructure with a new oil refinery and a petrochemical facility.
However strong Iranian-Senegalese relations proved to be an illusion, as the events of 2011 made clear. In April 2012, Senegal’s President Macky Sall defeated archrival and incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade during his bid for a controversial third bid. In re-establishing ties with Iran, Sall seeks to distance himself from the policies of his predecessor and re-kindle Iran’s interest in investing in Senegal.
Both Iran and Senegal sent more official delegates to the OIC Summit than a number of countries, including Qatar. An Iranian diplomat told the The Diplomat that a special emissary had been dispatched by the foreign ministry to Cairo specifically to focus on repairing diplomatic relations with Senegal–a move that appears to have been a fruitful one. However, if history is any guide, the Senegalese-Iranian relationship will continue to be a rocky one.
Republished from Diplomatic Courier with permission from the author