LAGOS, Nigeria, Dec. 30 (UPI) -- Iranian efforts to woo governments in Africa, where Israel has long cast its diplomatic net, have taken heavy knocks in recent days at a time when Tehran needs every friend it can get.
The West African states of Senegal and Gambia have put relations with the Islamic Republic on hold after Tehran was implicated in a big shipment of Iranian arms seized Oct. 26 in Nigeria.
Gambia, a tiny state with a nasty authoritarian regime, gave no reason for severing ties with Iran Nov. 23.
But Nigerian officials said Gambia was the intended destination of the Iranian arms, which included 107mm rockets, 120mm, 80mm and 60mm mortars and a large amount of small arms ammunition.
Neighboring Senegal, a predominantly Muslim state in Francophone Africa that has influence at the United Nations, followed suit Dec. 16, giving Iranian diplomats 48 hours to leave the capital, Dakar.
Gambia is relatively stable and doesn't face immediate internal or external threat.
But the country lies entirely within the borders of Senegal, whose southern Casamance region is gripped by a decades-old separatist insurgency, and smuggling arms through Gambia would be easier than through Senegal itself.
"The Gambian government under President Yahya Jammeh, whose family is originally from the Casamance region, is thought to be quietly and unofficially sympathetic to the Casamance rebels' cause of greater autonomy if not independence," the U.S. global security consultancy Stratfor observed.
In November, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, made a four-day swing through Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo and Benin to whip up support for Tehran in its confrontation with the United States and its allies over its contentious nuclear program.
Less than two weeks later, Mottaki was back in West Africa trying to explain what the arms shipment carried in 13 containers marked "construction materials" was doing in Lagos, Nigeria's busiest port.
What was more embarrassing was that Nigerian authorities arrested two Iranians, both officers in the al-Quds Force, the clandestine arm of the Revolutionary Guards Corps, who accompanied the arms.
One of them, Azim Adhjani, was charged with three Nigerians in connection with the arms seizure. Adhjani was released on bail of $260,000 Dec. 24 and is to go on trial Jan. 31.
The other Iranian, Sayyed Akhbar Tahmasesebi, claimed diplomatic immunity and is believed to have returned to Tehran with Mottaki.
The suspects were accused of conspiring to export the illegal shipment to Banjul, capital of Gambia, like Nigeria a former British colony.
Mottaki sought to make light of the arms scandal, brushing it off as "a misunderstanding." But the seizure of 290 pounds of high-grade Iranian heroin at Lagos port in November added to Tehran's woes.
Nigeria hasn't formally protested to the U.N. Security Council about the arms shipment.
Once it became clear the weapons weren't intended for militant groups in Nigeria, which faces a contentious presidential election in April, the Abuja government backed off.
"Nigeria likely will not use this incident as a card in the larger game against Iran unless Washington prods it to do so," Stratfor observed.
But it noted: "It is highly unlikely that these two recent seizures -- the arms on Oct. 26 and the heroin on Nov. 18 -- were the first times the Iranians have used Lagos for such operations."
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has long sought to expand the influence of Shiite Iran into Africa.
There are large Shiite communities, mainly of Lebanese origin, in West Africa where they dominate the diamond trade and allegedly help bankroll the powerful, Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement in Lebanon.
In 2008, Ahmadinejad declared at the United Nations in New York that he saw "no limits to the expansion of Iran's ties with African countries."
As Iran's international isolation has grown, Tehran has stepped up its efforts to secure diplomatic support in Africa. These have focused primarily on strengthening Muslim links with offers of oil and economic aid.
Ahmadinejad toured Africa in April, while in 2009 Iran conducted 20 ministerial visits across the continent, signing an array of commercial, diplomatic and defense deals.
This has alarmed Israel, which has long courted African states as a buffer against the Arabs and to garner support in the United Nations. Israel has also used the arms trade to win over African regimes.