Iran’s national flags are seen on a square in Tehran February 10, 2012. (AP)

November 29, 2013

Mauritania celebrated the 53rd anniversary of its independence from French colonial rule on Wednesday. The State Department issued its usual message of congratulations from the secretary himself.

“The United States fully supports Mauritania’s democratic and economic development. We look forward to finding new opportunities to promote human rights and expand trade and investment,” said John Kerry in a written statement, stressing the U.S. ambition to work closely with Muslims to promote peace and security.

But America is not the only influential nation with eyes on the arid West African country, plagued by a series of coups in the last decade that has left its future uncertain within an increasingly hostile and violent region of the world.

Iran has been actively courting good favor in Mauritania, a move that has raised eyebrows among analysts. They question why the Middle Eastern nation, which is historically and predominantly Shia, has such interest in a Sunni Muslim stronghold such as Mauritania.

“It’s very serious, we should be very aware of…what Iran is doing now,” says Mohamed Saleh Tamek, a senior Moroccan government official and close adviser to King Mohammed VI. Tamek was part of a delegation that visited the White House Nov. 22, and he continues to manage a series of strategic security talks between the U.S. and his native country.

Morocco, a close neighbor to Mauritania, cut all diplomatic ties with Iran in 2009 following accusations it was using its embassy as a staging ground to try to convert Moroccans to Shiaism.

Tamek learned days before speaking with U.S. News about a new and growing Shia movement in Mauritania, an officially Muslim nation, largely at the behest of Iranians there working in close consult with Lebanese Hezbollah operatives, he says.

This follows a traditional pattern of Iran and its close regional ally gaining confidence in a local population elsewhere under the guise of religious education.

“They start with helping people, culturally, educationally, but they are actually grooming their ideas,” says Tamek. Their goal is “to spread ideology.”

That, by itself, has been a traditional starting point for Iran’s foreign relations.

“They, if no one else does, take seriously the ‘Islamic Republic’ part” of their name, says J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center and frequent adviser to the U.N., the White House and Congress.

Through its brand of Shia Islam, Iran sees itself as the “vanguard for the oppressed in the world,” says Pham, which is why they have courted a band of very unlikely allies.

President Hassan Rouhani has been the face of what the Iranian government hopes will be seen elsewhere as a friendlier and more moderate state. Then president-elect Rouhani announced in July a new series of bilateral relationships he hoped to foster, including with Brunei, Gabon, Guyana and Mauritania.

These nations have “always been a priority in his foreign policy,” according to the state news service Fars.

Indeed “Iran” appears frequently in headlines from the Mauritanian official state news agency, Agence Mauritanienne d’Information. A recent uptick of news in November reveals Mauritanian delegates have been holding private bilateral meetings during the recent Arab-African Summit in Kuwait City, according to a translated version of AMI reports.

 These talks have centered around increasing relations and cooperation between the two countries.

But so what? Why shouldn’t Iranian diplomats liaise overseas like any other country?

Mauritania’s geography here is significant. It has few natural resources and less than half of one percent of its land is arable. Much of its reaches is occupied by barren, flat plains of the Sahara, making borders difficult to police. Refugee camps throughout the rest of this region, including in Algeria for those who escaped Western Sahara (controlled by Morocco despite deep Algerian objections), are prime recruiting grounds by extremists.

Northern and West African nations have received an unusual amount of headline space in recent years, following reports that regional Sunni insurgent groups have begun aligning themselves with international terrorism syndicates. Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, traditionally based in Algeria, Mali and Niger announced in 2012 it wished to be recognized by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. MUJAO had a heavy hand in the December-January insurgent movement in Mali that prompted a massive French retaliation.

Nearby al-Shabab recently followed a similar pattern through the leadership of outside al-Qaida fighters who rebranded the Somali rebel group as an international extremist force.

The threat of kidnappings is rife throughout the region, according to the latest State Department warning against travel to Mauritania.

“AQIM continues to demonstrate its intent and ability to conduct attacks against foreign nationals, including U.S. citizens,” it states. “As a result of Western involvement in counterterrorism efforts, AQIM has declared its intention to attack Western targets. AQIM attempts at retaliatory attacks against Western targets of opportunity cannot be discounted.”

The State Department announced in early November it would construct a new embassy compound in the capital Nouakchott to, among other driving factors, increase security.

“We need to be more concerned because this is a country that tries its best, it is in a bad neighborhood, and in many respects the ‘success’ in Northern Mali increased the stress on Mauritania and Niger,” says the Atlantic Council’s Pham. “When they’ve already got that stress coming from AQIM, you add Iranian meddling into the mix and you’ve really got a problem.”

Part of the regional concern also lies in the brand of Islam that Iran imports. Sunni Islam focuses on the each practitioner’s personal and direct relationship with God. Shia Islam, however, relies much more heavily on priests as a conduit for its spirituality. Those who would twist the religion for extremist violence are able to exploit the more tangible elements of Shia beliefs for this purpose.

Virulent strains of Islamic extremism come not just out of Shia Islam but the type of Shia influence in Iran, says Pham.

Iran’s attempts at establishing a stronghold in Morocco failed. Similar attempts in Gambia and Senegal ended similarly. Mauritania might be their last chance to have, as Pham says, a place on the ground floor for what will be a region of crisis for the next few years.

“It’s like being thrown out of seats at the 50-yard line,” he says. “It keeps them in the game in an area where they’ve been pushed out.’

“This is a real danger,” says Pham.

About Track Persia

Track Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.