LAGOS— A trial in Nigeria at the end of the month is expected to expose details of an Iranian arms smuggling operation in Africa run by the Revolutionary Guards’ clandestine arm, the al-Quds Force.
An Iranian, Azim Aghajani, identified by Nigerian authorities as a senior officer in the al-Quds Force, faces charges of smuggling 13 shipping containers loaded with weapons and ammunition that were uncovered October 26 at the port of Lagos.
He was charged November 25 along with three Nigerians for importing and attempting to export arms.
A second Iranian sought by the Nigerians, Ali Akbar Tabatabaei, listed as the commander of al-Quds Force operations in Africa, claimed diplomatic immunity when the arms were discovered.
He took refuge in the Iranian Embassy in Abuja. He was flown to Tehran with Iranian Foreign Minister, Manuchehr Mottaki, who had made an emergency trip to Nigeria in November to soothe the diplomatic stand-off triggered by the scandal.
Diplomatic sources in Abuja said Tabatabaei is understood to have been reassigned to Venezuela to oversee al-Quds Force intelligence operations in Latin America.
The Nigerian authorities say the Iranian arms, 107mm rockets, 60mm, 80mm and 120mm mortars, ammunition for 23mm anti-aircraft guns and small arms ammunition were destined for Banjul, capital the Gambia.
The arms, concealed in 24 crates in a shipment listed as construction materials, were reportedly uncovered by Nigeria’s intelligence service after a tip-off from Israel’s Mossad foreign intelligence service. Indeed, Israel initially claimed the weapons may have been bound for Hamas in Gaza.
The arms had been shipped aboard a French freighter, MV Everest, owned by the French company CMA CGM, from the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas in the Persian Gulf.
The Revolutionary Guards maintain a large base there, which had been used for years to ship arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Palestinian Islamists of the Hamas movement that controls the Gaza Strip.
Mottaki’s main mission in Nigeria was to persuade the Nigerian government not to report Tehran to the U.N. Security Council for violating U.S. sanctions imposed in June 2010, which would have given the United States and its allies a pretext to slap additional sanctions on Iran.
The Nigerian government apparently agreed not to press the case with the Security Council possibly once they determined the high-powered arms weren’t destined for insurgent groups in the country but reserved the right to do so later if they saw fit as further investigations were carried out.
The United States has, surprisingly, not made a big issue out of the Nigerian affair, despite its confrontation with Iran over its contentious nuclear programme. But that could change.
The Americans, along with the Israelis, have for years been cracking down on Iranian arms shipments to groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas. U.S. authorities have targeted Hezbollah networks in West Africa, Latin America and the Middle East.
In January 2009, the Israeli air force, reports have included the U.S. Air Force as well, destroyed at least one truck convoy in northern Sudan that was supposedly carrying Iranian arms destined for Gaza.
In that year, at least three shiploads of Iranian arms allegedly bound for Hezbollah were intercepted in the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea.
In 2007, a derailed train in southern Turkey was found to be carrying Iranian arms probably destined for Hezbollah via Syria. It isn’t clear why the Tehran regime was prepared to smuggle arms to the tiny republic of Gambia, although they could have been intended for separatist rebels fighting neighbouring Senegal.
But such activities threatened to undercut Tehran’s efforts to build up diplomatic, political and economic links in Africa to counter U.S. pressure in the United Nations.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made a tour of Africa in 2010 and staged an Iran-Africa summit in Tehran attended by representatives of 40 countries.
Gambia and Senegal both broke off diplomatic relations with Iran. Nigeria, Africa’s most populous state and a key supplier of oil to the United States, is clearly not happy with Tehran and other African states are likely to view Iran with some suspicion now.