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Foreign aid

Beaming in Senegal
One of many attempts by Iran to be on the world scene during the oil boom, and why not?

Written and photographed by Farhad Sepahbody
October 11, 2003
The Iranian

I recall a time - 1976 or thereabouts - when Iran provided much financial assistance to less fortunate countries of our planet. Senegal was one of them. But then the drop in oil prices came along. Our trip to Senegal and the visit to Gorée Island occurred more or less around that time. Long ago, the Senegalese people called the island Ber. The Portuguese renamed it Ila de Palma. The name was changed to Good Reed by the Dutch and the French called the island Gorée - meaning "good harbor".

But the name did not match with the horrors that what went on in this tiny island between the 16th and 19th centuries when wooden ships sailed from here with human beings chained in their holds across the Atlantic. On the island, there is a small fort known as Slave House. This was in effect one of the slave warehouses through which Africans passed on their way to the Americas. Millions have passed through the island and other similar trading posts to work in the plantations of the New World, including America. The shipping of slaves from Gorée lasted from 1536 when the Portuguese launched the slave trade to the time the French halted it 312 years later.

Gorée Island is just 3 km off the Senegalese coast, and its tiny size made it easy for merchants to control their captives. The surrounding waters are so deep that any attempt at escape would mean certain drowning. With a five kilo metal ball permanently attached to their feet or necks, a captured African would know what jumping into the deep sea would bring.

The visit there by George Bush in July 2003 lasted just 20 minutes. He said: "American slavery was one of history's greatest crimes," He delivered the rematks at the very spot where hundreds of thousands of Africans were he reminded "bought and sold like cargo." The images beamed back to the US were intended to send a powerful message to black electors who could well help decide the next American presidential election!

The reason for our visit was to help Senegal's development program. The Iranian delegation was headed by Empress Farah Pahlavi, accompanied by her mother Mrs. Farideh Diba, Prime Minister Amir Abbas Hoveyda, National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) head Mohammad Eghbal head and Plan and Budget chief Abdol Majid Majidi. Our security, if we call it that, consisted of only two private guards for the Empress and one smart captain by the name of Ghassem Nily for Hoveyda. Parviz Tanavoli had an outlandish sculpture to be dedicated at "Keur Farah", the new Iranian industrial complex established in Senegal amd Novin Afrouz came for a piano recital >>> See photos

I was beaming. Hyperactive Reza Ghotbi, the special adviser to the Empress and head of Iran's National Television and Radio, a freethinker (yes we had quite a few) who had accompanied us -- asked what was the reason for my so obvious satisfaction. "Imagine," I said brandishing the paper, "We finally made it! We replaced the West and have our own oil distribution stations, Iran is everywhere."

"Tssk, tssk, Farhad," he answered, "we fought the imperialists, are we in the process of becoming like them too?" And he added sternly: "In my opinion, it could be that we will have to pay dearly for that."

Anyhow, it was reported  that the Senegalese had made a bonfire out of the former Shell gas station signs and danced around them. When I asked one of their top journalists about the new NIOC logos at our gas pumps in their country, he came on with an unexpected answer: "Our people love it, for the lion is the proud king of the African jungle and the burning torch is the symbol of African freedom! They relate well to that sign." He went on: "Senegal is the Country of Terranga. Terranga means welcome, warm Welcome. The Lions of Terranga are the soccer players of our national team." That's logical, I thought. Besides I love lions and cats too.

Ok, nice place, nice people? A big yes, but as usual in all those official trips, I had little time to enjoy the scenery and instead spent many hours in my room behind the typewriter revamping speeches to be delivered. The one of the Empress was a particularly good one and your's truly spent the entire night working on it. The Empress often wanted to add or delete passages and I must say, her additions or deletions were pertinent.

But the ugly part was that there were no computers at the time, and I only had a portable typewriter. A real chore. Another diplomat worked harder than I; he was Massamba Sarré, Senegal's envoy to Tehran. He was and still is a good friend, witty, clever. During the seventies, he was a regular visitor to the Iranian Court. Both the Shah and the Queen liked him. He did superior work for Senegal and managed to further his country's growing development with the help of Iran.

The Tanavoli sculpture did not make much sense to me and I wonder what the Senegalese thought of it -- I never asked. But then modern art has its mysteries. I must quiz Tanavoli someday. Other things back home didn't make much sense either. We were helping foreign countries at the tune of billions of dollars, a rate we would not be able to sustain in the future. Developing countries, -- western ones too -- as well as world institutions were constantly knocking at our door for more financial help.

Unfortunately, due to a nose-dive in oil prices, Iran wasn't doing as well financially. Majidi, who was sort of enjoying this jaunt, delivered the following cautious interview around the same time and I bet it didn't fall on deaf ears, or did it? Old clippings are useful at times. Here is one from MidEast Report (January 15, 1976):

Iran-Interview with Abdil Majid Majidi

The first Iranian official to formally announce the new prioritie in the $69.6 billion five-year development plan was Abdol Majid Majidi, Minister of State and Director of the Plan and Budget Organization. At a June 15 press conference in Tehran, the 46-year-old minister said that his government is reassessing the development priorities because of the anticipated shortfall in oil revenues for this year.

In an exclusive interview with our editor in his office, Majidi still felt that by the end of the current Iranian year (March 20, 1976), his country will reach the anticipated level of oil and gas revenues which he put at $21.7 billion. He was preparing the current Iranian year's supplementary budget and that of next year due to begin March 21. This year, the budget has been originally estimated at $24.7 billion equivalent. More than 90% of this budget will be financed by oil revenues.

"We are," he stressed, "trying to be within the limits of the approved budget. I am trying my very best to keep the same ceiling." Iran and other members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) had completed their fourfold rise in oil prices on January 1974, following the October Arab-Israeli war and in the middle of the Arab oil embargo. Early in 1974, planners have estimated Iran's petroleum and gas income for this year at about $24 billion, and at $100 billion during the 1973-1978 development plan.

But oil production has dropped by 15% in 1975 from 1974, according to Jamshid Amouzegar, Iranian Minister of the Interior and Iranian government representative at OPEC (see his interview in MER of November 15). The main reasons were a mild winter in the West and world recession. Iran, nonetheless, has to face additional non-anticipated bills. Its total imports for this Iranian year are estimated to reach $15 billion because of world inflation and because the country is fast developing. Inflation in Iran, which was predicted to reach 22% this year, was reduced by 4.5% by the end of October, according to official figures, because of the price controls imposed by the Shah this summer.

Also, congestion at the ports and transportation foul-ups are costing Iran some $300 million a year in surcharges and ship demurrage. Ships at the port of Khorramshahr have a waiting time of up to 120 days causing high congestion surcharges. In fact, Iran ended up paying 50% more for goods and services than it, in effect, anticipated.

Is Iran expecting more oil income over the next years? Majidi said that his government and the National Iranian Oil Co. are negotiating with the international companies and we are waiting for the final agreemen with what he calls the trading companies, meaning the foreign oil concerns.

Turning to the priorities, the Harvard-educated (Public Administration) minister said in the interview which was conducted in English, "We are preparing the budget within the framework of the fifth development plan trying to stick to the objectives. Because of physical constraints, we have to eliminate items of expenditures. The general priorities for the different sectors of the economy will be the same as in the fifth plan. There is no shift." In short, Majidi mentioned housing, ports andall infrastructures that are important in terms of expanding the capacity of the economy as well as the productive sectors.
Asked if Iran is going to provide more foreign loans in the future, the minister of state emphatically stated:

We will be sticking to our previous commitments and obligations. I dot think we will be committing more, lest the aid and funds provided by OPEC (of 10 cents on each exported oil barrel). No new commitments are foreseen in the new budget but we shall respect our previous commitments Is Iran going to acquire more equity in foreign companiesThat depend, Majidi pointed outon the availability of funds for foreign investments. Wll continue our policy of foreign investments either by plowing back foreign revenues or through direct investments, but much will depend on the financial position of next yea.

The reason, according to the Director of Plan and Budget Organization, why Iran did not follow the deal with Pan American World Airways, was well explained... the long-run prospects were not promising. We wanted a voice in management, access to knowhow, technical cooperation. We wanted to expand Iran Ais network and activities. They wouldn't give us assurance, manpower, etc He also citedother problems" in terms of a controlling part over the management and the labor disput inside the U.S. airline company.

Asked if Iran, as was rumored in Wall Street, is going to purchase some equity in the Anaconda Company, Majidi said he was not aware of that information but that Anaconda is providing technical cooperation in the developing of the Sar Cheshmeh copper deposits in Iran. He acknowledged there were some negotiations over Burmah Oil Co. and with British Petroleum.

Concerning some equity acquisition in the financially ailing Chrysler (United Kingdom) Ltd., Majidi conceded that some contacts have been made with Chrysler (UK) concerning the price, but they have not reached any point. "At the present time," he added, I don't know."

Oh well. Looking back at the trip to Senegal, everything went smoothly, without a hitch. Although the oil bubble did burst - the trip should be considered as just one of many attempts by Iran to be on the world scene, and why not? In addition, it was a welcome, memorable, enjoyable interlude for all of us and I hope a profitable one for both Iran and the Land of Terranga >>> See photos


Farhad Sepahbody is a career diplomat turned journalist. He was Iran's last ambassador to Morroco under Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi.

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