Mauritanians place a high value on pragmatism. The Essentialist would have it that they are “by nature” pragmatists; the country’s politics and foreign policy would support the claim. When Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz traveled to Iran and met with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei predicted the destruction of Israel and described a united Muslim effort against it, one would assume that in sitting so closely to so polarizing a leader the Mauritanian President was getting something substantial in return. Ould Abdel Aziz has used anti-Israel language to great effect since seizing power in 2008; this was justified as a means of gaining financial support from wealthier “radical” states — Libya and Iran especially — because western governments cut aid in protest of his coup. Since the 2009 election, though, Ould Abdel Aziz has been rehabilitated by Mauritania’s major partners, notably France. He was given classical treatment during his visit to Paris last autumn. But he has consistently moved to engage and bring in other actors into his patch of Francophonie; not just Libya, but Venezuela and Iran as well. The French are not happy about his visit to Tehran; there is a rumor among some diplomatic circles that Ould Abdel Aziz received a bitter message from the French, so worrisome that he departed more hastily than planned. Knowledgeable people believe that the process leading up to that visit, with all the Francafrique cash-flow it entailed (which is too much to get into here) convinced Ould Abdel Aziz that he could buy off the French and carry on however he would like; the French do not seem to be one of mind with him there.
Three agreements were signed at Tehran, all related to development or finance; notably a guarantee of 500 taxis and 250 buses (to help reduce urban congestion). Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will visit Nouakchott sometime in the near future. The pragmatists would seem to be utterly unimpressed. Ould Abdel Aziz has been an annoyance to many in Washington, not simply for his coup, but for his anti-Israeli rhetoric and action. But because this is a small country largely irrelevant in the actual goings on of the Palestinian issue, it is not difficult to shrug it off and offer a little less money to its government. The whole thing carries the double mantle of Islamic solidarity and south-south cooperation. It forces more consideration.
This visit is, as was written earlier, deliberate. It follows the rhetoric of the immediate post-coup period and it fits his pattern of travel since the election. He was hosted in Caracas, Venezuela over the summer where he secured an oil refinery. At the same time, the Venezuelans were moving to do much the same with others in Mauritania’s vicinity. Here was Hugo Chavez demonstrating the trans-continental implications of the Bolivarian Revolution. Politically these are marginal, so long as Venezuela remains as marginal as it in fact is, but it compounds (with the Israel moves) for the United States the hostile superficialities that Ould Abdel Aziz has made since its negative response to the coup. For the French it represents the introduction of an outside actor into its historical sphere of influence and a powerful annoyance. His long standing hobnobbing with Mu’amar al-Qadhafi works on both these actors, but is better understood; its terms (which included the break with Israel) spoke of defiance but its substance is more routine in a regional perspective. His most consistent backers have been Morocco and France; the United States has only cautiously accepted him, mainly for his utility in the counter terrorism context and (likely) from a weariness of controversy. The French and the Moroccans and the Americans have a direct idea of how they look at Iran. The French and American positions do not require elaboration here; the Moroccans broke their ambassadorial relations with both Venezuela and Iran over issues related to the Sahara and allegations that the Iranians have attempted to spread Shiism in the kingdom. Aligning himself with the Iranians and Venezuelans and other such countries would seem to be contrary to Ould Abdel Aziz’s interests.
Some in his circle believe that Ould Abdel Aziz sees himself in the manner of a za’im, pushing consensus among Arabo-Muslim leaders. In the way of Mokhtar Ould Daddah, it is argued, he is exploiting the international system to Mauritania’s gain, using ideological fault lines to irritate other actors into adjusting their position to Mauritania’s favor. In that analogy, Iran is akin to communist China, whom Ould Daddah recognized to gain Chinese support on a range of development and diplomatic causes. He kept a strong relationship with France but spoke out against it where useful. Here, it is said, he is using Iran and the anti-western camp (if such a thing exists) to gain needed economic and political support for his regime. This ignores, however, that in his outreach to those players he risks alienating long standing partners, with proven records of providing projects and cash. This is most clear in the Gulf and in Europe. France’s displeasure with the visit seems to speak to this; he gains nothing from the Gulf states by moving nudging up to Iran. It stands to damage his standing with the rich Arabs. It is rumored he hopes to squeeze millions of dollars out of the Iranians. He should worry that the closer he draws to Tehran, the more stress he puts on his relations with wealthier and more powerful allies.
One is reminded of Ould Tayya’s courting of Iraq in the midsts of the first Gulf Crisis. The motivations were similar. There was an element of ideology and a failure to appreciate the precariousness of the new ally. The financial benefits from that relationship were similar, though Iran today might have slightly more to offer than Iraq in those days. Ould Tayya realized the danger of putting too much emphasis there and eventually changed his tune. Ould Abdel Aziz may see a similar possibility in Iran, in which he can play up his neo-Non-Allied and Islamic credibility while keeping open and alternate flow of investment into the country. The timing is curious, though, given the international climate of late. At once it might appear clever and imprudent; it comes at a time when the rich world is preoccupied with money troubles and while the Iranian problem seems only to grow worse and worse from the western perspective. Close associations with Tehran are difficult in the medium to long-term.
In Mauritanian diplomatic circles there is a sense of confusion. If the General is interested in south-south cooperation, these people say, why not pick a more kosher partner? Brazil is one that comes up frequently as a smarter alternative. There is a record of cooperation — one of Mauritania’s major roads is evidence — and the Brazilians can provide technological and development expertise far more readily than the Iranians. Their ideological appeal is only lacking in that they are not Muslims. The Brazilians, by Mauritanian estimates, have a similar, yet more pragmatic, reluctance to be beholden to or subject to Great Powers. One Mauritanian, in exasperation, exclaimed “they [the Brazilians] are more like us!” remarking that the Iranians may be Muslims but that they do the religion no good. But the General, it seems, prefers to go hardcore.
In an email, a young Mauritanian student associated with the Islamic movement there wrote of his joy at seeing Ould Abdel Aziz meet with Abdullah Gul. “He has gone to the Islamic democracy and will bring an embassy here,” he wrote. Turkey as an Islamic democracy is a curious concept; his wording says more about him than Turkey. He went on: “He has the support of Erdogan, which is a good thing for us.” If Ould Abdel Aziz has won kudos for exchanging embassies with Ankara, he has divided opinions where Iran is concerned. The visit was a popular subject in Mauritanian newspapers and websites; some in Islamist circles were pleased to see his meetings with Ahmadinejad and Khamanei and to hear the latter’s remarks on Israel and the Holocaust. Others were indifferent. In the mainstream there was interest that did not equate to endorsement or enthusiasm. Practically all were quick to laugh at the spoils, deemed paltry, silly and overblown. Any great anxiety about the trip itself might fall into those same terms. The hottest question among young people is: what kind of busses will the Iranians send? One young source has already come up with derisive nickname: Azizibus, stout and semi–amphibious minibuses.