Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Senegalese counterpart Abdoulaye Wade Photos: AFP/Getty Images

Rhetoric or reality

By By Peter Guest | Published:  29 December, 2009

Attention may be focused on Iran’s nuclear programme but Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government has worked hard to become an increasingly global power with a reach that extends into both Latin America and Africa

Perhaps more than ever this September, international eyes were fixed on the theatre of the United Nations general assembly. The grandstanding of Muammar Gaddafi aside, the long running standoff between the United States and Iran over the latter’s nuclear programme meant that Iranian issues, still fresh in the public consciousness after the country’s disputed election in June 2009, remained top of the international agenda.

The US and its partners ran through a number of approaches to dealing with the Iranian government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with little tangible success. Worse still for Western interests, Tehran’s intractability, far from deepening Iran’s international isolation, has actually increased its prestige and hastened the coalescence of ‘non-aligned’ powers around the highly polarising figures of Mr Ahmadinejad and his Venezuelan counterpart, Hugo Chavez. The two are united by a rhetoric of “anti-imperialism” and by the use of hydrocarbon wealth to promote their interests. Both have defended regimes, such as Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, that are seen to defy Western interference.

Despite the bullish tone of the Africa-Latin America summit, held on the Venezuelan resort island of Margarita in September, Caracas’ international potency may have been undermined by the collapse in oil prices, which has forced Mr Chavez to focus on domestic spending in order to continue the public programmes which underpin support for his populist government. Mr Ahmadinejad’s government, however, seems to be more confident than ever, having come through a strong domestic challenge in June – which saw mass protests and international condemnation – and then latterly resisted pressure over its nuclear programme, garnering support at the UN.

Ideology aside, that support is the result of a long and expensive diplomatic programme that the Islamic Republic has pursued with increasing fervour. The recent narrow focus on the nuclear issue disguises the fact that Iran has been developing into an increasingly global power, expanding its reach outside of its immediate region and into both Latin America and Africa. Oil money, but also oil expertise in refinery construction and operation and manufacturing capacity in automotive and agricultural equipment have been put on the table as Iran spreads its influence in the Global South.

Sudan and Zimbabwe were, relatively speaking, “low hanging fruit” for Iran’s diplomatic expansion. Isolated from the West, both have received support – rhetorical, if not material, from Tehran. Neither is a regime that the West is keen to court in their current forms, although the protracted secession of Southern Sudan from the central government in Khartoum does open up the potential for a direct conflict between Iranian and Western interests. Kenya and Uganda have also hosted recent delegations, the latter having reportedly agreed on cooperation over the processing of its recently discovered oil.

South Africa and Senegal have been the other main targets of Iran’s diplomacy, which is typified by large numbers of high profile visits by senior politicians, says Michael Rubin, resident scholar and Iran expert at the American Enterprise Institute. These two powers exercise considerable influence in their immediate regions and, particularly in South Africa’s case, have a voice in international forums.

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