Gen. Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz has made some headlines by visiting Turkey and Iran this week. The Iranian visit is more important. Its context is Ould Abdel Aziz’s cultivation of the Axis of Bombast during his time as junta head, especially after his harrowing use of the Gaza crisis to break Mauritania’s ties to Israel and thereby win himself kudos at a popular level. His rise to power had already alienated many western aid-givers, and he went especially cash strapped after expelling the Israel Ambassador; but it was all in the plan, as Libya and Iran (and Qatar, too) were ready to pick up that slack and buy some influence in Nouakchott toward their own purposes. All that is colored in terms of Islamic solidarity and south-south cooperation. The Iranian Foreign Minister visited Nouakchott last year; many find the whole thing curious, if not suspicious. It more the latter than the former but here it is considered generally.
Ould Abdel Aziz’s whole rhetoric around Israel and Jews changed markedly as a result of this, but very likely only because it was both easy and politic — there are no Jews to speak of in Mauritania who might be bothered by it and he stood only to gain radical patronage from it. How much Ould Abdel Aziz is “against Judaism,” as he said on the campaign trail, is wholly circumstantial. His visit to Iran, the praise President Ahmadinejad offered him and the pledges for expanded economic cooperation between the two countries are resultant from this. His visit to Turkey is part of this, mostly superficially, but has more to do with that country’s efforts to reach out to Muslim and Arab states in general, and is unrelated to either country’s Israel ties. Being seen with the Turks is not remotely harmful (many young Arabs hold the Turkish PM Recip Tayyip Erdogan in high esteem for his gruffness with Israel) and expanding economic relations with Turkey does no one any special harm. The visit to Iran is more significant for the Mauritanians, as it is part of the convergence of domestic and foreign policies over time, deliberately and colorfully.
Much of the English writing on the visit has highlighted the Ahmadinejad’s praise for Ould Abdel Aziz’s cutting ties with Israel last year. That is obviously an important part of the two country’s relationship under Ould Abdel Aziz. But it ignores the more mundane priorities that drive that; a desire to obtain monies from Iran for development and operational purposes. It does not derive, on the Mauritanian end, from a deep feud with Israel ideologically. It comes from the fact that Ould Abdel Aziz, as Machiavelli would say, came to power by devious means and in the process alienated many (though not all) old friends who are much stingier today than they were but a few months ago. He has courted countries like Iran and Libya and so on to compensate for those fiscal setbacks. In Tehran, he was accompanied by the predictable combination of his Foreign Affairs Minister, his Minister for Economic Affairs and Development, a Counselor and two advisors. It is nothing of a show of force in the manner of, say, the 800 Brazilians who descended on Copenhagen not long ago, but no less deliberate. It has raised Ould Abdel Aziz’s profile in the short-term, but the real point is twofold: (1) to capitalize on assurances for (economic) assistance made by the Iranians during and after the Gaza crisis (recall when Ould Abdel Aziz met with Ahmadinejad during the Doha Arab Summit); and (2) to keep up the image of his government as “normal,” as has been the point of all his foreign visits since the election.
The visit exaggerates Ould Abdel Aziz’s importance in the world system and it serves Iranian propaganda well. But coming out a year after the whole thing came up in the first place, it bears asking: was Mauritania’s break with Israel really as earth shattering as Ahmadinejad seems to think it was? The geostrategic space in Nouakchott freed up for the Iranians by the departure of the Israeli embassy is quite thin; Israel’s losses there are minimal. They have gotten Ould Abdel Aziz to nodd his head while his counterpart went on about bringing wrath on Israel, after which the Mauritanian said he would help by strengthening bilateral ties. So on the Iranian side not much has been accomplished; the bigger winners are the Libyans for a host of their own idiosyncratic reasons. But for them this is only a small part of bigger struggle that is generally removed from the Sahel — even if one wonders about Iranian ambitions in west Africa (which are easily exaggerated, though real). Thus far they have taken over operations at an oncology center, started up as a cooperative project between Mauritania and Israel, to the ire of many. It will improve the Iranian image in Mauritania. It might perhaps accomplish other things, too.
For the Mauritanians it means much more, as said above, but that success is tempered by the fact that the cuts in aid given to Iran from important western countries represent a more significant challenge in the medium and long term than any resources Iran might be willing to commit could compensate for. In the Turkish case, the Mauritanians went and begged for investment in their country; in Iran they did much the same, and got it, except they also got a fiery speech as a party favor. The Mauritanian-Iranian relationship deserves close attention; Mauritania will likely continue to grow closer to Iran for economic purposes and the Iranians will consider Mauritania a far flung ally. Since Mauritania’s ability to influence Israel has altogether evaporated, what the Iranians will ask for when they look to cash in on their stock remains to be seen.