The presidents of Gambia and Iran have expressed interest in increasing economic and political cooperation between their countries. Analysts say a relationship between oil-rich Iran and West Africa's cash-deficient countries holds potential gain for both sides. Phuong Tran reports from Dakar.
Gambian President Yahya Jammeh is currently concluding a visit to Tehran. That trip comes several months after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attended an African Union summit in Banjul.
In spite of the fact that Gambia is not currently a major trading partner with Iran, political analysts believe a Gambian-Iranian relationship is in the interest of both sides. Both presidents have been quoted in the media as saying they want to increase cooperation.
Meir Javendanfar is an Iranian affairs analyst with Meepas, a Middle East analysis company based in Israel.
"Iran is so isolated that it is willing to back any country as long as that country is willing to back Iran's case in the international community," Javendanfar said. "No matter how small a country, as long as it has a role in the U.N., it is valuable to Iran."
The United Nations passed a resolution in July demanding Iran suspend its nuclear enrichment activities. The Iranian government insists that its nuclear program is peaceful and does not violate the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
London-based Middle East analyst Richard Reeve, who is with the Royal Institute of International Affairs, says mostly Muslim Gambia can benefit from Iran's interest, especially since Mr. Jammeh's policies are drawing criticism from some Western countries.
"President Jammeh is reaching out to non-traditional sources of income because he is falling out increasingly with his Western donors," explained Reeve. "He's looking for new sources of money and he thinks a good way of doing that is increasing his anti-Western rhetoric."
The United States has suspended Gambia from the Millennium Challenge aid program for Africa, citing human rights abuses and restraints on freedom of speech.
According to Meir Javendanfar, the Iran analyst based in Israel, the Iranian government has offered the Gambian president credit to expand the country's agriculture and energy sectors.
Though none of the countries in West Africa are currently major trading partners with Iran, that may change. The Iranian Islamic Republic News Agency reported that Iranian marketing delegations will visit 12 African and Arab countries by the end of March 2007. Countries that will be visited in West Africa include the Ivory Coast, Benin and Senegal.
Political analyst Richard Reeve believes that Iran considers West Africa a counterweight against growing pressures from the West over its nuclear program.
"Iran is quite active in West Africa," he noted. " It is looking for new friends. It is interested in any diplomatic support anywhere."
In a sign of the growing cooperation, Iran's Khodro Industrial Group, an auto manufacturing concern, is now exhibiting at the 17th Dakar International Trade Fair, which continues until this Friday.