Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is in the Republic of Benin, Nigeria’s immediate neighbor to the West, at the beginning of a West African tour that will also take him to Niger and Ghana.
Observers say Ahmedinejad’s main objective is to secure from Niger, a reliable source of uranium for his country’s controversial nuclear programme.
Niger is the world’s fourth largest producer of the resource. Uranium from the landlocked country is mostly transported through the ports of Benin. The visit has thus attracted a lot of attention, with some analysts claiming it could court the anger of the West towards the African countries he is visiting.
Benin’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Nassirou Arifari Bako, who visited Tehran in February, is however downplaying such claims, saying the visit is simply to discuss mutual interests in energy, education and agriculture. He denied that Ahmadinejad's talks in Benin were linked to his visit to Niger. A statement from his ministry also claimed that the visit is in connection with Ahmadinejad's position as chairman of the Non-Aligned Movement.
Ahmedinejad was met on arrival by the President of Benin, Yayi Boni, who is also the Chairman of the African Union. The Iranian leader told reporters that the two countries have mutual interests and intend to collaborate in the interest of their peoples."We have decided to advance relations in all areas…Benin has great potential... President Yayi and I have a lot of experience and we are now going to develop our relations in the areas of energy, trade, industry and engineering."
The final stop on Ahmedinejad’s tour is Ghana, where he is expected to hold discussions with President John Mahama on Tuesday before returning to Iran on Wednesday. Ghana is a young oil producing nation and talks are expected to center on co-operation in the oil industry as well as education and trade. Iran is believed to have an interest in Ghana’s gold and cocoa.
Western powers suspect Tehran of developing a covert programme aimed at having the capacity to produce a nuclear bomb and it is believed Niger’s uranium, a vital ingredient, is desperately needed to further this cause, in the face of mounting sanctions against Iran.
Iran claims its uranium is being used for energy and medical purposes, but still refuses to grant the United Nations atomic watchdog access to inspect its plants.
Niger has recently expressed dissatisfaction about a uranium trade agreement it has with France. The former colony is demanding more profit from the agreement.
Ahmadinejad previously visited about a dozen African countries in a move believed to be aimed at seeking diplomatic support for his country in the face of the UN sanctions.