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Ahmadinejad Trip Tempts African Trade Hopes

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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s two-day visit to Zimbabwe last week has stirred up dissension within Zimbabwe’s unity government. Members of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), including Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, stayed away from official welcoming ceremonies, as they assailed the Iranian leader’s stand on human rights and other issues.  The MDC argued that Mr. Ahmadinejad’s visit would send a wrong message about Zimbabwe, which is trying to restore democracy and revive a shattered economy with western aid.

Journalist Sanday Chongo Kabange covered the Ahmadinejad visit for the online media outlet Africa News.  He says that in contrast, Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe has offered support for Iran’s nuclear program and generally has been trying to strengthen ties among countries at odds with the west.

“Mugabe has gone to his so-called ‘look East policy,’ where he’s seeking a lot of support from Asian countries after the United States and Great Britain, and especially the European Union, imposed travel restrictions on his government.  So he’s looking out to Asia for support, especially when it comes to finance and technical support to develop his country,” he said.

Iran has been actively seeking suppliers for the development of its nuclear program. After refusing to share data with international inspectors of its uranium enrichment program and making threats against the state of Israel, Tehran has drawn several rounds of sanctions from the United Nations.

As a resource-rich southern African country, Zimbabwe is believed to have available uranium deposits to sell.  On Monday, Zimbabwe Industry and Commerce Minister Welshman Ncube denied reports that Iran had won permission to extract uranium with Zimbabwe receiving oil  from Iran in exchange.  Journalist Kabange says that despite no mention of nuclear issues on the public agenda during last week’s talks, the subject may very likely have been raised, not only because of Iran’s needs, but also due to Harare’s interests.

“Africa is at the moment certainly experiencing a critical shortage of energy, and maybe nuclear energy will be one area that Robert Mugabe and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad might have discussed,” said Kabange.

He said Zimbabwe’s motivation for selling may also stem from both dire economic need and eager advances from rapidly expanding countries in Asia.

“When somebody’s desperate and has a lot of resources, they can do anything.  Uranium is actually being explored in most African countries, and Zimbabwe has quite sufficient deposits of uranium.  Probably, that is one thing that might have triggered Ahmadinejad’s visit.  While trading with countries like China, for example, that are heading towards Africa to get a lot of raw materials to use it in their industries, probably the visit by Mr. Ahmadinejad would be one that’s trying to look for resources and then penetrate Africa for more uranium,” he noted.

On Friday, Mr. Ahmadinejad headed from Zimbabwe to Uganda, where he signed several cooperation agreements  and sought support against a fourth round of U.N. sanctions against his nuclear expansion.  Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni did not indicate whether Kampala will back new sanctions.  But with leverage as a rotating member of the U.N. Security Council, Kabange says that Presidents Museveni and Ahmadinejad had a lot to talk about over the weekend.

“Iran has seen that there are a lot of raw materials in Africa.  I’m sure it is trying to get as much as it can, win the support of African countries, get the raw materials, and take it back, probably to its nuclear program.  It might have these enormous nuclear plans within its country and is trying to enrich itself with a lot of nuclear energy, so it wants to get as many resources from different sources in Africa,” he suggested.

President Museveni has not yet disclosed whether Uganda will back sanctions against Iran.  Uganda is reportedly also interested in acquiring, perhaps from Iran, the capability to develop and refine its own oil resources in northwestern Uganda around Lake Albert, which is believed to hold approximately 2 billion barrels worth of oil.

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