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IRAN, NIGERIA: Heroin and hand grenades sour Abuja-Tehran relations

November 19, 2010 |  6:56 am

Picture 3 Iran may have sought to cast the recent Nigerian arms smuggling scandal as a "misunderstanding," but it will be difficult to make the same case for at least 286 pounds of high-grade heroin found hidden inside a shipment of Iranian auto parts at a Lagos port.

“The goods originated from Iran and the last destination port of the vessel is Nigeria, so the question of the container being [in] transit is ruled out" the port's area comptroller of customs, Austin Warikoru, told the Nigerian newspaper Vanguard, which appears to have broke the story on Friday.

This latest bust comes just a week after Nigeria reported Iran to the United Nations for allegedly smuggling high-caliber weapons into Nigeria despite U.N. sanctions banning Iranian arms exports.

In October, 13 shipping containers originating in Iran and labeled as construction materials were found to contain rocket launchers, grenades, guns and ammunition. The same French shipping company, CMA-CGM, has been connected to both the shipments of weapons and smack.

Conflicting reports have emerged regarding the destination of the weapons, but Nigerian officials have voiced suspicion that they may have been intended for rebel groups fighting against the government. In addition to the Niger Delta separatist movement, which has launched attacks on government forces and foreign oil companies, Nigeria is also home to a substantial Shiite minority that has been accused of recieving monetary support from Iran in the past.

Iran, which does not recognize the sanctions, claims the arms were a legitimate and legal transaction between Iran and a third west African country, which some media reports have identified as Gambia.

Nigerian officials denied that the current diplomatic row will seriously impact Nigerian-Iranian relations, but they have not indulged Iranian attempts to gloss over the incident as a misunderstanding.

“Iran is one of Nigeria’s friendly nations and the Nigerian government is not presently thinking of cutting off diplomatic relations with Iran but the Iranian government has to reassure us that such a thing will not happen in the future,” an highly placed source in the president's office told Vanguard following a security meeting Thursday.

But Iranian analyst Amir Musawi told the pan-Arab satellite channel Al Jazeera that official statements from Abuja, the Nigerian capital, reflect an internal struggle in the Nigerian government.

"We know that in the Nigerian government there are two lines, a pro-Iran line and an anti-Iran line," he said, according to a transcript. "The anti-Iran trend perhaps tried to create trouble for the Nigerian government and to push it into a crisis with Iran. I believe the Iranian diplomacy is working to solve this problem with the Nigerian government."

-- Meris Lutz in Beirut

Picture: Weapons and heroin originating in Iran were found on board French shipping vessels in Nigeria. Credit: Screenshot by Meris Lutz via CMA-CGM shipping