A recent NYT article highlights an ongoing investigation into the source of small arms ammunition in parts of SSA. Here are the highlights of the article:
“For six years, a group of independent arms-trafficking researchers worked to pin down the source of the mystery cartridges. Exchanging information from four continents, they concluded that someone had been quietly funneling rifle and machine-gun ammunition into regions of protracted conflict, and had managed to elude exposure for years…. When the investigators’ breakthrough came, it carried a surprise. The manufacturer was not one of Africa’s usual suspects. It was Iran.”
“The independent investigation also demonstrated the relative ease with which weapons and munitions flow about the world, a characteristic of the arms trade that might partially explain how Iran sidestepped scrutiny of governments and international organizations, including the United Nations, that have tried to restrict its banking transactions and arms sales.”
“Ammunition from other sources, including China, Russia, Hungary, the Czech Republic and other former Soviet bloc states remain in circulation in Africa, along with production by African states. Why Iran has entered the market is not clear… They are not sure if the ammunition had been directly sold by the Iranian government or its security services, by a government- or military-controlled firm, or by front companies abroad.”
“He also noted that while the ammunition is Iranian-made, it may not have been sent directly by Iran to some of the combatants.
“In terms of prescription, if it was clear that there were repeated violations by Iran, I think we could come down more strongly about it,” he said. “But a good portion of this, and in perhaps the majority of these cases, the ammunition was transferred around Africa by African states.”
I think the report is going too easy on the Iranian government. Iran has stock in African instability; focusing Western resources on Africa means non-secular Islamic countries can continue to repel the forces of modernization and democracy. There are only so many resources to go around; if by contrast humanitarian struggles look much worse in SSA than in the Middle East (which in general they do), then naturally SSA will receive the majority of international intervention. This is exactly what the current elite in Islamic countries would want—drain the resources of Western humanitarian assistance and focus them elsewhere.
Iran specifically has another reason to want to divert international attention away from itself–its controversial Nuclear Program.
This is connecting some dots, and certainly is speaking in very general terms. Of course there are some forces in Iran and the Islamic world–including elites–that very much want democratization, modernization, and an egalitarian growth process. I have repeatedly thrown my support behind controversial Egyptian President Morsi, and so far it seems the democracy experiment in Egypt has been a success (although a shaky one, much still remains to be seen before Egypt can be a true success story of democracy in the Islamic world).
But it is evident that Iran has entered the African small-arms trade , and that Iranian manufacturers have gone to all lengths to try to hide their involvement. The authors of this study were smart not to condemn the Iranian government specifically, as there is not enough evidence for that. But Iran has supported the Assad regime in Syria throughout the civil war, and it is clear that Iran has very loose oversight of small arms trade. Either way, lax of oversight is just as harmful in actively providing weapons. Iran has to be made responsible for cleaning up its small arms trade, or the international community has to step up its enforcement of Iranian sanctions.
I would venture that the Iranian government is directly involved in the small arms trading, as a means of promoting regional instability in SSA and avoiding international sanctions by trading on black markets. This means further action by the international community will be needed to stop Iranian small arms trade. Perhaps Morsi could further cement his reputation as a reformer by helping with this difficult task.