Iran Makes Last Stand in Mauritania

Why the U.S. should be concerned about a growing Iranian presence in the West African nation.

Newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a former top nuclear negotiator, addresses an electoral campaign event in northern Tehran on May 30, 2013.
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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.

[READ: International Tensions Mount Following Iran Nuclear Deal]

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.

[ALSO: Islamists Win Seats in Mauritania Elections]

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.

Correction 11/29/2013: This story has been updated to correct the location of refugee camps in Algeria.