Why is The Gambia picking a fight with Iran?

Tiny Gambia added itself to Iran’s enemies this week when it abruptly cut diplomatic ties with the Islamic Republic and ordered its diplomats to leave the country. The announcement likely marks the end of Iranian investment in the African country which includes a $2 billion deal to provide commercial vehicles. Gambian President — and perhaps ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

Tiny Gambia added itself to Iran's enemies this week when it abruptly cut diplomatic ties with the Islamic Republic and ordered its diplomats to leave the country. The announcement likely marks the end of Iranian investment in the African country which includes a $2 billion deal to provide commercial vehicles. Gambian President -- and perhaps soon king --  Yahya Jammeh gave no official reason for the move, but it's thought to be linked to last month's seizure of Iranian weapons in Nigeria, which some officials now say was bound for The Gambia. 

Initial speculation about the weapons suggested that they were eventually bound for Gaza. But why Gambia? Naturally, there are a few theories:

Alaeddin Borujerdi, head of the foreign-policy committee in Iran's parliament, said an "Iranian company" had struck an agreement to sell arms to Gambia several years ago and that the cache was sent "under international law." Gambia's decision to sever ties was made under pressure from the United States, he said, but would have little effect because Iran's diplomatic involvement there did not even amount to having an embassy.

Tiny Gambia added itself to Iran’s enemies this week when it abruptly cut diplomatic ties with the Islamic Republic and ordered its diplomats to leave the country. The announcement likely marks the end of Iranian investment in the African country which includes a $2 billion deal to provide commercial vehicles. Gambian President — and perhaps soon king —  Yahya Jammeh gave no official reason for the move, but it’s thought to be linked to last month’s seizure of Iranian weapons in Nigeria, which some officials now say was bound for The Gambia. 

Initial speculation about the weapons suggested that they were eventually bound for Gaza. But why Gambia? Naturally, there are a few theories:

Alaeddin Borujerdi, head of the foreign-policy committee in Iran’s parliament, said an "Iranian company" had struck an agreement to sell arms to Gambia several years ago and that the cache was sent "under international law." Gambia’s decision to sever ties was made under pressure from the United States, he said, but would have little effect because Iran’s diplomatic involvement there did not even amount to having an embassy.

However, Scott Lucas, editor of the Enduring America website and an Iran analyst at Birmingham University in the United Kingdom, says the arms may have been linked to a failed 2009 attempt to overthrow Jammeh, who himself came to power through a coup in 1994.

"Since the recent coup in Gambia, there have been factions vying for power," argues Lucas. "It is unclear to whom the arms were to be sent, but it is likely to be one of those factions. […]

As to who might have provided these arms, Lucas also suspects Revolutionary Guards involvement: "The most likely explanation is that they had come from a faction within the Iranian government, in or connected to the Revolutionary Guards."  […]

[Analyst Meir] Javedanfar says Iran has tried to cultivate ties with African countries with strategic waterways, possibly to give it the means of making retaliatory strikes against Western interests in the event of an armed conflict.

"One of the linchpins of Iran’s Africa policy has been to try and improve relations with countries that have coasts on the important waterways," says Javedanfar, who points out that Gambia is wedged between Senegal on the Atlantic coast.

"This would be an important attraction to the Iranians. It would certainly add to Gambia’s strategic value. There is also the fact that it is close to Senegal, which is an important Iranian ally. Any country that has access to important waterways and has important relations with Iran could later on be used to pressure the U.S. and to help Iran expand its influence in Africa."

Michael Singh wrote recently over at Shadow Government about the Iranian government’s seemingly contradictory double-game in West Africa: building trade a diplomatic ties with local governments while simultaneously supporting militants and arms-smuggling groups in the region. Whatever the full story is, it seems that Tehran may have overplayed its hand in The Gambia.  

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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