ZIMBABWE’S blunt foreign policy strategy may work against the country’s drive to reengage the United States, Britain and their Western allies, political analysts said this week.
The analysts said the hosting of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last week by government was tantamount to sticking a thumb in the eyes of the West, especially the US which has described Iran as an “outpost of tyranny” and part of an “axis of evil”.
Ahmadinejad was in the country to officially open the annual Zimbabwe International Trade Fair (ZITF) and his visit could have coincided with a re-engagement meeting between a Zimbabwean delegation and European Union officials in Brussels. The Zimbabwean delegation failed to make the trip after cancellation of flights due to the Iceland volcanic eruptions.
The Iranian leader’s visit also caused friction within the coalition government as partners were not agreed on the guest’s presence with the MDC-T snubbing him, claiming they were not consulted about his visit.
Ahmadinejad and President Robert Mugabe took turns at a state banquet last Thursday to lambaste the West. There was much show to make the world recognise the “bustling” friendship between the two countries, leading many to question what there was for the people of Iran and Zimbabwe.
Ahmadinejad’s message was predictable and found resonance with his host, Mugabe, looking for allies in his attacks on the West. These have become both leaders’ trademarks over the years.
Mugabe and Ahmadinejad’s pronouncements made news internationally and may have policy implications in the short-term, especially at a time when both Zimbabwe and Iran are pushing for the lifting of sanctions on their respective regimes.
Analysts said the Iranian leader’s visit was an own goal in terms of Zimbabwe’s endeavour to reengage the West. University of Zimbabwe political science lecturer Professor John Makumbe said by inviting Ahmadinejad, the country was shooting down the whole engagement process.
“The Iranian leader’s speeches were very derogatory against the West and he threatened to go ahead with his nuclear programme,” said Makumbe. “Zimbabwe is seen in the same light as Iran and the chances of reengagement are fast disappearing as Zimbabwe has shown who her friends are and the West may continue to tighten the screws.”
Psychology Maziwisa, interim president of the Union for Sustainable Democracy, said there was nothing to be gained from associating with a country such as Iran.
“Iran’s economy is doing badly, its regime is facing the greatest challenges since its foundation,” said Maziwisa. “This is no time to be arrogant and boastful about associating himself (President Mugabe) with authoritarian regimes, some of which have nuclear weapons capabilities. Now is the time to work towards the cultivation of good relations with nations committed to democracy, peace and economic prosperity –– and Iran is not one of them.”
Another analyst, John Kanokanga, chairman of the Zimbabwe Movement for Peace and Reconciliation, saw no problems in inviting the Iranian leader since “Zimbabwe is a sovereign country”.
Kanokanga said it was the prerogative of the president to invite anyone to the country and there was no way the visit would impair efforts to restore cordial relations with the West.
This was countered by other analysts who said Iran was faced with its own problems and there was nothing for Zimbabwe to gain from it.
Maziwisa said Mugabe was failing to understand that independence and interdependence go hand in hand. Zimbabwe has over-emphasised the country’s sovereignty to the detriment of its relations and interaction with other countries.
Iran is the least alluring of possible friends because of its problems both at home and abroad, Maziwisa argued.
Iran attracted international ire after it insisted that its uranium enrichment programme is meant for peaceful purposes but many countries, including Russia and China, are not convinced and the spectre of further sanctions is ever present.
Apart from the threat of developing its nuclear capability, Iran is also faced with serious challenges pertaining to its response to discontent, especially after the 2009 elections when the opposition alleged rigging.
Iran crushed protests against the outcome of the election.
Maziwisa, however, added that the damage was likely to be minimal for the country as the Iranian leader would be seen as a guest of Mugabe, not Zimbabwe.
“If anything, this visit will serve to harden the EU’s contempt for Mugabe and bolster their determination to maintain targeted sanctions against him and his ilk,” said Maziwisa.
Zimbabwe is desperate for foreign direct investment, donor funding and reengagement with countries in the West, especially the European Union and the US which it traditionally trades with.
Makumbe said Zimbabwe has failed to realise the “strategic planning of foreign policy” by inviting Ahmadinejad to officially open the ZITF which is meant to attract businesses from countries the Iranian leader attacked.
By inviting the Iranian leader, Makumbe added, questions would be raised as to how Zimbabwe would relate with other economies which were caught in Ahmadinejad’s attacks.
“This is economically unsound and incorrect,” said Makumbe. “We are not operating in a vacuum and when a country is destitute, like Zimbabwe at the moment, it has to look for the right friends with the right resources.”
Foreign policy is a forerunner of the country’s economic interests and despite the smiles that the Iranian leader showed on arrival, the trade volume between the two countries is still marginal.
A number of bilateral deals have been signed but these are no substitute for the ready markets that the country may enjoy with the full restoration of relations with the West.