December 2, 2010 | World Defense Review

Behind Iran’s Foiled Gambian Gambit

His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya Abdul-Azziz Jemus Junkung Jammeh, President of the Republic of The Gambia, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces and Chief Custodian of the Sacred Constitution of The Gambia—to give him his full official title—is, in many respects, the living, breathing incarnation of the sort of tin-pot dictator of a banana republic who is best encountered in an Evelyn Waugh novel like the wicked 1932 satire Black Mischief. According to the curriculum vitae posted for him on his government's official website, he possesses only a high-school equivalency certificate. But the lack of formal higher education has not prevented the former military policeman from styling himself as an Islamic religious scholar, a university don, and the holder of a doctorate. In fact, every one of the honorifics claimed by His Excellency is lovingly recorded on the website, even risible distinctions “Awarded the World Lifetime Achievement Award by the American Biographcal [sic] Institute, Raleigh, North Carolina” (April 1999) as well as some rather dubious ones for which no public record exist outside the Gambian web like “Award of Admiral in the Great Navy of the State of Nebraska” (October 2010), “Appointed Honorary Admiral, Alabama State Navy by the Governor of The State of Alabama” (March 1998), and “Appointed Honorary Citizen of the State of Georgia” (November 1993). Although an outcry by health authorities worldwide has forced him to remove references to his special seven-herbs-and-spices banana “cure” for HIV/AIDS (officially dubbed the “Presidential Treatment Programme”) from his online biography, His Excellency still notes under the heading “special skills” that he “possesses extensive knowledge in traditional herbal therapy especially in the treatment of Asthma and Epilepsy.”

Despite these awesome credentials and quite remarkable qualities, the Gambian leader also shares some of the same hobbies as more ordinary humans, including “Playing Tennis, Playing Soccer, Hunting in the Forests, Reading, Correspondence, Driving and Riding Motorcycles, Browsing the Internet, Watching Music Movies, Animal Rearing and Keenly following world events.” It is fortunate that His Excellency is so keen on following events around the globe since for once his slightly-larger-than-Delaware-sized country is in the news—and not just for the comic relief that its appearances in the press usually signal such as when, in September of this year, its state-controlled media claimed that “the president of the United States of America, Barrack [sic] Obama” conferred on him the “President's Volunteer Call to Service Award” and the “Platinum Award 2009 by President Barrack [sic] Obama.” Last week Gambian authorities issued a press release that was actually noteworthy from the point of view of substance:

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, International Cooperation and Gambians Abroad wishes to hereby notify the general public that the Government of the Republic of The Gambia has taken the decision to server [sic] all diplomatic, economic, political and social ties with the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran effective 22nd November 2010. In this regard, all Government of the Republic of The Gambia projects and programmes which were being implemented in cooperation with the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran have been cancelled with immediate effect.

Consequently, all Iranian nationals representing the interest of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran in The Gambia are being requested to the leave The Gambia within forty-eight (48) hours from the effective date stipulated through a notification that is issued to the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

While no explanation was given for the abrupt break, most analysts believe it is linked to the seizure in late October by Nigerian officials of some thirteen containers loaded with mortars, rockets, and other military-grade armaments. The weapons cache, hidden within a larger shipment of construction material, was transiting Lagos and bound for the Gambian capital of Banjul. Four suspects, one Iranian and three Nigerians, were arraigned on charges of arms trafficking before the Magistrate's Court in Nigerian port city last Thursday. The Nigerians, who according to a report in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz had been tipped off by Western intelligence, obviously did not buy the excuses proffered by Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki—who had just been in the region on a tour of Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo, and Benin—flew back to the West African country in an attempt to mollify its angry officials. To add to the Iranian's discomfiture, the Nigerians identified the Iranian they are holding, Azim Aghajani, as a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and have delivered a detailed inventory of the weapons shipment to the sanctions committee of the United Nations Security Council as a possible violation of the embargo on the Iran's arms trade. Compounding the humiliation for the Iranians, on November 19, Nigeria's National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) seized some 130 kilograms of heroin, worth about $10 million, concealed in engine parts shipped from Iran.

What is interesting is that until the announcement of the cut in diplomatic and economic ties, Jammeh of The Gambia had actually become quite chummy with his equally eccentric Iranian counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The latter has visited Gambia twice, in 2006 and 2009, while the former has visited Iran once, in 2006. While the may not have seen much of each other the Gambian and Iranian leaders forged significant ties since Ahmadinejad took office in 2005. As part of his strategy to spread Iranian influence in Africa, which I analyzed this year, Ahmadinejad reached out to the Gambians, citing the two countries' common experience of being pressured by “bullying powers,” the one because of its nuclear ambitions, the other because of its abysmal human rights record (last year, for example, Amnesty International reported that 1,000 Gambians were abducted from their homes by government-sponsored “witch doctors” who forced them to drink a poisonous “cure” as part of a “witch hunt” initiated by Jammeh after he suspected that his aunt had succumbed to “witchcraft”). In the last five years, the Iranians have pumped more than $2 billion dollars into Gambia—roughly $1,000 for every man, woman, and child, in the country—for an array of agricultural and other development projects. In exchange, they received the diplomatic support of the tiny African nation in their confrontations with the international community as well as access to a territory that has increasingly been viewed as a significant hub for transshipment, money laundering, and similar activities associated with the burgeoning West African drug trafficking and other criminal networks.

So what is going on? The explanation offered by some analysts that the arms were destined for an attempt to overthrow Jammeh, who himself came to power through a coup in 1994, when he was a 29-year-old lieutenant. However, absent evidence of an earlier falling out with his Iranian friends, it is improbable that even the fanatics of the IRGC would be trying to topple a president on whom their regime had already invested so heavily. A more plausible explanation is advanced by Essa Bokarr Sey, a former Gambian ambassador to the United States, who suggested in a Voice of America interview that the arms may have indeed been destined for Banjul with Jammeh's full knowledge and that he only turned on the Iranians after the shipment was seized in order to cover up for his involvement and to limit the fallout from Western countries on which his tiny impoverished state (according to the CIA's World Factbook 2010, Gambians tie with North Koreans in terms of GDP per capita) is heavily dependent for aid for any sustained economic growth. Perhaps not coincidentally, just this Monday, less than a week after the Iranians were kicked out, a new U.S. ambassador, Pamela White, presented her credentials to Jammeh. Ambassador White is a career Foreign Service officer who spent most of her time serving in U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) positions.

In fact, as I noted in an interview with Bloomberg, the decision by Jammeh might well have actually been rational. Gambia was already under scrutiny by the U.S. Congress for its human rights record. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), chairman of the Subcommittee on the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs of the Senate Appropriations Committee, had already introduced language into the foreign operations bill for the current fiscal year that would limit International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE) and International Military Education and Training (IMET) funding to Gambia as well as mandate that the Treasury Secretary “instruct the United States Executive Directors of the international financial institutions to vote against any loan, agreement, or other financial support for The Gambia” unless the Secretary of State certifies significant progress has been made on human rights concerns. With Republicans with strong national security interests controlling the House of Representatives in the incoming Congress, being linked as an accomplice to Iranian skullduggery would hardly improve Jammeh's standing in Washington. Thus there may indeed be a kernel of truth in the claim by a senior member of Iran's parliament that Gambia severed ties with the Islamic Republic as a result of Western pressure aimed at stifling Iranian influence in Africa, as Alaeddin Boroujerdi, head of the legislature's national security and foreign policy committee, was quoted as asserting.

The question remains, as to what plot might the Iranian regime or, perhaps more specifically, the IRGC been hatching. It is entirely possible that Gambia had been viewed as a very convenient depot for their operations throughout the region. While Banjul may seem a backwater, it is remarkably better positioned to serve as a launch pad for operations than more isolate areas. While it is presumed much of this infrastructure, including the literally dozens of banks whose existence in the impoverished country ought to set off alarms with international law enforcement agencies, is to support the vast drug traffic, it could just as easily be adapted to facilitate arms flows and other operations in furtherance of the Iran's revolutionary agenda. The fact that, just last week, the Nigerians seized another illegal shipment of arms, including more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition and eight military vehicles, points to the ongoing nature of the challenge. And for the Iranians, in the northwest corner of Africa, there are all-too-many opportunities to simultaneously advance the strategic objective of expanding influence far afield and profiting from a lucrative trade.

One final note: While the Iranian regime may have lost its convenient pied-à-terre with Jammeh in Gambia, it can nevertheless console itself with the knowledge that the door is still wide open right next door. Senegal, whose octogenarian president has paid no fewer than four visits to his Iranian counterpart in Tehran and has backed the latter's nuclear program, is expecting to host yet another state visit by Ahmadinejad this month. Maybe the Iranian president wants a tour of the grotesque 49-meter bronze statue of “African Renaissance” that President Abdoulaye Wade paid the North Koreans to erect for him since Ahmadinejad's previous call just a year ago, but somehow cultural tourism is probably not the reason for the journey. In November, President Wade's son, Karim—whom the old man made Senegal's minister of state for international cooperation, regional development, air transport, and infrastructure last year before adding the energy ministry to his portfolio a few weeks ago—announced the signing of several agreements with Tehran, including provisions for the creation of a joint investment company and a commercial bank as well as a electrical monopoly covering some 423 towns and villages. Who knows what other, unannounced “joint ventures” Tehran may have already launched with Wade fils, who seems to be no stranger to Iran, having found the occasion to visit several times this year according to reports in the French media. All this and more in a country where the spigots are about to open on an ill-considered $540 million Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) aid package paid for by American taxpayers. Is it too much for the voters who just elected the 112th Congress to expect that their representatives might want to take a closer look at the behavior of and company kept by third world rulers who claim handouts from the U.S. treasury at a time when Americans themselves are being asked to tighten their belts?

— J. Peter Pham is Senior Vice President of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy in New York City. He also holds academic appointments as Associate Professor of Justice Studies, Political Science, and African Studies at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and non-resident Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.