DAKAR (Reuters) - Arch foes Iran and Israel have taken their diplomatic rivalry to Africa, courting the continent with everything from trade to security ties in their search for support in the United Nations.
Both nations are sending politicians and business leaders across the continent to forge or revive contacts, clinching a string of deals ranging from arms and agriculture to promises of dams, oil and protection.
Although not on the scale of the Cold War-era rivalries that saw Russia and the U.S. fight proxy wars in Africa, analysts say the continent is increasingly important to Iran and Israel and believe countries will take what is on offer from both sides.
“The main battleground is the U.N., where Africa’s 53 votes can really add up,” said Eurasia Group’s Philippe de Pontet.
“This isn’t likely to take the form of an auction-like bidding contest, but increased financial diplomacy by both the suitors, including targeted investments and aid projects designed to curry favor,” de Pontet added.
In June, the United Nations Security Council adopted a fourth round of sanctions on Iran over its refusal to suspend nuclear work, which Iran says is peaceful but Western countries believe is cover for a weapons program.
The 15-member Security Council includes three African states -- Gabon, Nigeria and Uganda, which all supported the sanctions.
Last week Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was in Nigeria, which is hosting the summit of D8 developing nations and also holds the rotating presidency of the Security Council. Nigieria is also Israel’s top Africa client for defense exports.
Ahmadinejad says Africa is a foreign policy priority and has been a frequent visitor to the continent in the last 18 months.
Before Nigeria, he was in Mali, where Iran is meant to be building a hydroelectric dam. Ahead of a recent U.N. vote, he was in Uganda, dangling offers of oil and refining capacity.
He has also been a regular visitor to Senegal, which he calls Iran’s “Gateway to Africa,” and where an Iranian-built factory has churned out thousands of bright yellow taxis.
“Iran is really using some of these African nations to balance its increasing isolation and, drawing from that, access markets. Africa is a fertile ground,” said Sanam Vakil at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
“It is not necessarily a successful strategy. But the Iranians are pragmatic. It is an insurance policy that may some day pay off,” she added.
Despite failing to win support from the three African U.S. Security Council members in June’s sanctions vote, Ahmadinejad has been feted from Senegal to Zimbabwe and Iran has secured support for its nuclear program from some African countries.
Israel, too, has launched a charm offensive.
Once admired by African nations as a post-colonial success after its 1948 founding, Israel was cut off from dealings with many African countries after its 1967 occupation of land now sought by Palestinians.
In the highest profile visit in decades, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and a batch of businessmen went on a five-nation tour of Africa in September last year, looking to drum up diplomatic support and business deals.
In terms of aid, the government touts its expertise in health and farming arid lands. Israeli businessmen also work in mining, security and telecommunications across the continent.
“(It is) a battle to constrain operations or groups that can be harbored and used against them,” Mark Schroeder, director of Sub-Saharan Africa analysis at Stratfor, a global intelligence company, said of Israel’s activity in Africa.
In East Africa, Israel worries about Islamists in Somalia. In the West its concerns include the large Lebanese trading community which may make contributions to the militant group Hezbollah back home.
Jack Rosen, head of the American Jewish Congress, who lobbies African leaders, said neither Israel nor the United States took the threat posed by Iran in Africa seriously enough.
“We don’t want to see it become a breeding ground (for extremism), so Iran is a problem,” he told Reuters by telephone.
He said Africans voting for sanctions was a clear sign that leaders understood the limitations of standing with Iran, and the importance of a future with Israel and the United States.
Despite their diplomatic push, Iran and Israel still fall well behind other countries in terms of trade with Africa.
Israeli exports to Africa last year totaled just over $1 billion and imports were around $1.5 billion. The semi-official Fars news agency said Iran’s non-oil exports to Africa in the last nine months of 2009 came to around $230 million.
By contrast, African trade with China is over $100 billion per year. Brazil’s exports to Africa were $8.7 billion in 2009.
A number of Iran’s projects, like the much-vaunted hydro project and a tractor plan in Mali, have failed to materialize, or been overtaken by Chinese and Indian rivals.
Vakil said Cold War comparisons were an overstatement, and played into Iranian rhetoric. Some nations, like South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya, happily court both sides.
Citing what she called the “weakness and isolation” of both Israel and Iran, Sanusha Naidu of the South Africa-based Fahamu social justice network said the wider issue was whether it would be Africa’s countries or merely their elites that would benefit.
“The question is how African nations capitalize from this.”
Additional reporting by Tiemoko Diallo in Bamako and Joseph Nasr in Jerusalem; Editing by Mark John and Peter Graff