By Davood Baqeri
Iran’s ambassador to Khartoum, Reza Ameri is an expert on Sudan and African affairs. He has been in Khartoum for almost nine years -- four years as ambassador. In an interview with Iran Daily in the Sudanese capital he talked about his work and the opportunities Iran missed in that country and did not utilize effectively.
Iran Daily: What is the quality of Iran-Sudan ties? Are there any constraints in the way of bilateral cooperation?
Ameri: We should categorize relations into two parts, namely ties with the people of this country and interaction with the government. I must say that bonds are very good and Sudanese people cannot distance themselves from Iran due to their religious beliefs. The people here are like the freedom-seeking masses in other countries, and whenever their president speaks out against global arrogance it has a very positive feedback.
Regarding ties with the Sudanese government, it should be noted that if Iran does move fast and does not draw on the prevailing conditions, the golden opportunity will be missed. I believe we have lost opportunities in the past. For instance we lost opportunities in relation to cooperation in the oil sector. When Sudan started to exploit oil in the late 1990s, it discussed cooperation with Iran, but since Iran then had limited ties to other countries in the oil sector, and since it was preoccupied with exploiting oil at home, it could not collaborate with Sudan.
Hence, Sudan was compelled to cooperate with China, India and Malaysia.
Now Sudan has proposed cooperation with Iran in developing its oil fields. The Iranian company Petropars has studied the offer and come to the conclusion that the fields are not economically feasible. The company is willing to invest in the oil fields only in collaboration with another foreign country.
Development of oil fields in north and south of Sudan has been assigned to foreign firms and there is little room for Iranian companies to step in.
Could you elaborate where the problem lies when it comes to meaningful economic collaboration?
Sudan owes Iran $180 million not including charges for delays in repayment This is among the hurdles to Iran’s active role in Sudanese projects. Sudan wants Iran to overlook the extra charges (incurred for the delay), which are quite high. Of course, in the past it was proposed that instead of repaying its debt, Sudan provide the Iranian side with land ownership or other assets. But since the decision on the issue was not made on time, this opportunity too was lost.
Is Iran worried about change of government in Khartoum?
Let me say that Iran has very good relations with Sudan’s ruling party and the incumbent government. We have no worry regarding the stability of the government and believe it will continue without facing any problem. Of course, the 2009 presidential election here will be decisive. The government has a high chance of retaining power given its popular support base and the development projects it has implemented.
In what area(s) do you think ties could be affected negatively?
What I’m worried about and have conveyed the same to Tehran of is that at times the expectations that Sudan has from us exceeds our economic ability. There are many projects in which Iranian companies can participate in and invest. But the projects are huge and beyond the economic might of our companies. For example, Sudan has proposed that we invest in several agro, industrial and road construction projects worth a few hundred million dollars. But given the problem that we encountered in the repayment of Sudan’s previous debt to us, it is difficult to enter new ventures. The past debt has overshadowed our future cooperation.
We are doing our best to differentiate new cooperation prospects from the debt dilemma. Iran provides Sudan $200 million in hard currency credit every year. This is hardly impressive. Currently, we have a water purification project in Sudan the contract for which has been finalized with a private Iranian company and is worth 70 million euros. A portion of the 200 million dollar credit goes for the defense sector and little amount remains for other deals.
Has Khartoum done anything to improve the situation?
In some cases the Sudanese side provides guarantees for capital returns that are not acceptable to Iran. For example, they say that in some projects a particular bank provide the necessary guarantees, but the Iranian side does not agree. Iran holds the opinion that Sudan’s Central Bank underwrite the investments. This is while the central bank says it does not offer guarantees for private enterprise and only guarantees state projects. This is a major problem for which we are trying to find a solution.
How is the two-way cooperation on the international level?
The two countries have perpetually supported each other in various international forums. Sudan supported Iran’s membership bid in the UN Security Council. At times when Sudan had problems with other Arab countries Iran helped it to settle the problem and move forward. Last year Sudan was the rotating chairman of the Arab league and contributed significantly to interaction between Iran and the Arab states.