Tension Mounts between Iran and Mauritania

, May 31, 2018

Institute for Contemporary Affairs

Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation

Vol. 18, No. 15

  • Relations between Iran and Mauritania are deteriorating every day due to heavy pressure from Saudi Arabia on Mauritania to cut off diplomatic ties with Iran.
  • Iran’s ambassador in Nouakchott, Mauritania’s capital city, was summoned by the Mauritanian foreign minister to explain increased Shiite activity at the al-Mujina mosque in Nouakchott. Since the Mauritanian president’s 2010 visit to Tehran, 50,000 Mauritanians have converted from Sunni Islam to Shia.
  • Mauritania is deeply mired in poverty. When Israel still had diplomatic ties with it, the president of Mauritania believed that Jerusalem could provide it with its needs for rebuilding the country. Since ties were cut with Israel, Mauritania has been divided between various conflicting interests, and particularly those of Saudi Arabia and Iran.
  • Gradually, under the guise of assisting the needy in the Middle East and Africa, Shiite Iran is infiltrating moderate Sunni strongholds and converting them to Shia Islam.
Javad Zarif and Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz meeting in Nouakchott, Mauritania’s capital, in June 2017. (Iranian press)

The relationship between Iran and Mauritania is deteriorating every day due to heavy pressure from Saudi Arabia on Mauritania to cut off diplomatic relations with Iran. The president of Mauritania is still debating how to explain cutting off connections with Tehran, which had been growing in recent years.

At the beginning of May 2018, Morocco severed ties with Iran, and under Saudi Arabian pressure, Mauritania cut off relations with Qatar in May 2017.

On May 25, 2018, Mohamed al-Amrani Iran’s ambassador in Nouakchott, Mauritania’s capital city, was summoned by the Mauritanian foreign minister to explain increased Shiite activity at the al-Mujina mosque in Nouakchott. This mosque is close to the Iranian embassy, and it is essentially run by Iranian “diplomats.”

Following an “angry exchange,” the local imam who was sent from Tehran, was removed and replaced with another cleric. Mauritania is the only “Islamic republic” in the Arab League with a large majority Sunni population. Mauritanians are considered to be educated and devout in their Muslim faith. The city of Chinguetti is considered by Sunni Muslims as the seventh holiest place in the world. It was first built in 777 C.E.

Since the Mauritanian president’s visit to Tehran in 2010, the number of Mauritanians converting to Shia Islam has grown. Their leader Bekar Ould Bekar claims that since then, 50,000 Mauritanians have converted from Sunni Islam to Shia. Since August 2016, he has effectively represented all of the Shiites living in Africa.

Map of Mauritania

Mauritania (CIA Factbook)

With Iranian financial support, he has increased the number of “pilgrims” visiting Shiite holy sites in Iran and Iraq.

On June 19, 2017, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif paid an official visit to Nouakchott as part of “working discussions” also held in Tunisia and Algeria. According to a laconic official announcement released at the end of his visit, “The Mauritanian president and foreign minister of Iran discussed in general relations between both countries and in particular the economic sphere and the struggle against extremists and terror.”  This is how bilateral agreements between both countries were summed up.

After Zarif’s visit, Iran began building a new route that would link the city of Tindouf in Algeria with Zouérat in Mauritania. This long highway is intended for strategic military purposes, creating a territorial link between both countries, making it easier for Iran to take control of Western Africa as far as the Polisario strongholds.

Mauritania is a very wide country, the boundaries of which extend over more than 1,030,700 sq. km, bordering Mali, Algeria, Morocco, and Senegal. It has a population of only 4 million people, with an unemployment rate of 40 percent. It is an impoverished country – ranked 154 on the global list. Its main resources, fishing and mining, were exploited over the years by a particular tribe that continues to have complete control. Mauritania is a desert country that is 50 times the size of Israel.  Recently, it discovered oil along its shores that can be used for commercial purposes. However, the sparse population, which is comprised of tribes, is still living in disgraceful conditions. In the past, despite its membership of the Arab League, no Muslim country has ever helped it, and not even one Western capital bothered to invest any resources in it or rehabilitate it.

What Does Iran Want From Impoverished Mauritania?

Mauritania is deeply mired in poverty, and Libya and Iraq under Saddam Hussein took advantage of its wretched situation to provide financing to encourage terror and incitement against Israel and the West. At the same time, Saudi Arabia constructed mosques and study centers and turned the country into a devout, conservative Muslim republic. Since Mauritania is supported by Iran, its growing closeness with Iran over the past few years has increased tensions in the country.

Apart from its internal, economic hardships and its activities in the Arab League, Mauritania continues to deal with two main challenges:

  • Foiling terrorist activities along its long border with Mali. It is working with France, who is assisting in training its forces, weapons, intelligence, and logistics.
  • Hostile activities of the Polisario, in the north of the country. The Polisario demands recognition and independence in Western Sahara. There is still ongoing tension with Morocco and Algeria, even though Mauritania bowed out of the dispute and displays apparent neutrality. Iran is assisting the Polisario with its struggle through its embassy in Algiers. It is clear that Iran’s continued activity in Mauritania will make its involvement in the dispute with the Polisario easier, and will ramp up tensions and instability throughout North-West Africa, and especially in Morocco.

Relations between Iran and Mauritania began to get warmer in 2008, after the military coup of Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, when Mauritania cut off relations with Israel.

Mauritania and Israel

Full diplomatic relations with Israel began with the opening of an Israeli embassy in Nouakchott. It was the first and only Israeli embassy in the whole of North Africa.

Following the Second Intifada in September 2000, Mauritania was the only Arab country, apart from Egypt and Jordan that did not cut ties with Israel. It did not follow Morocco, Tunisia, and the Gulf states, despite the tremendous pressure exerted upon it to do so.

Relations between Israel and Mauritania were based on close cooperation in the fields of medicine and agriculture, within the framework of Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation (MASHAV). Despite pressure from the Palestinians and Iran, the prime minister of Mauritania paid an official visit to Israel, followed by visits by two foreign ministers. A delegation of Knesset members visited the country, along with Foreign Ministers Silvan Shalom and Shimon Peres. Thousands of

Mauritanians were treated by Israeli eye surgeons in field hospitals, and a modern medical center was built for cancer treatment with Israeli funding. After relations were eventually cut off with Israel, the hospital was put under Iranian supervision.

After the establishment of relations with Israel in 1999, which was achieved through much effort, Mauritania cut off diplomatic ties with Libya and Iraq and downgraded the status of its representation in Syria. The president of Mauritania believed that it was better to have full relations with Israel and thought that Jerusalem could provide it with its needs for rebuilding the country and making its government more stable. He also believed that thanks to the “Jewish lobby,” it would receive additional aid from the United States and that there would be more opportunities for loans and donations. At the same time, he promised to help Israel obtain more moderate decisions at the Arab League and support the peace process. Of course, his brave decision to build ties with Jerusalem led to Mauritania’s isolation in the Arab world and even to a chilling of relations with France, which had always been its ally.

Since ties were cut with Israel, Mauritania has been divided between various conflicting interests, and particularly those of Saudi Arabia and Iran.

After Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2009, Iran used the wave of protests throughout the Arab world to draw closer to Mauritania. The vice-president of Iran visited Nouakchott and gave the country a huge aid grant worth millions of dollars.

Tehran’s policy is very simple. Just as it helps Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hizbullah in Lebanon, it will give social and humanitarian aid to Mauritania to take control of its authority and hegemony. Gradually, under the guise of assisting the needy in the Middle East and Africa, Shiite Iran is infiltrating moderate Sunni strongholds and converting them to Shia Islam.

It is clear that that continued Saudi pressure on the Mauritanian president and also promises of financial and military aid from the United States and France will speed up the process and hasten the cutting of ties between Nouakchott and Tehran.

Amb. Freddy Eytan

Amb. Freddy Eytan, a former Foreign Ministry senior advisor who served in Israel’s embassies in Paris and Brussels, was Israel’s first Ambassador to the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. He was also the spokesman of the Israeli delegation in the peace process with the Palestinians. Since 2007, he heads the Israel-Europe Project at the Jerusalem Center, which focuses on analyzing Israeli relations with the countries of Europe and seeks to develop ties and avenues of bilateral cooperation. He is also the director of Le Cape, the Jerusalem Center website in French. Amb. Eytan has written 20 books about the Israeli-Arab conflict and the policy of France in the Middle East, including La Poudriere (The Powder Keg) and Le double jeu (the Double Game). He has also published biographies of Shimon Peres, Ariel Sharon, Benjamin Netanyahu, and a book, The 18 Who Built Israel.