Arms cache seized in Nigeria was shipped from Iran

A leading Iranian official acknowledged Monday that an arms cache seized last month in Nigeria belonged to a private company with links to Iran but insisted that the "misunderstandings" between the two nations had been resolved.

Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said the weapons shipment was meant for another West African country, according to the semiofficial Fars News Agency. Nigerians later identified the country as Gambia.

Mottaki, returning to Tehran from a tour of four West African countries, including Nigeria, told reporters he had answered the concerns of counterparts in Nigeria, which feared the weapons were meant to support the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta. The guerrilla group is battling the Nigerian government.

Angry Nigerian officials had canceled a soccer match scheduled for Wednesday between the two nations over the flap and threatened to refer the matter to United Nations Security Council. The shipment may have violated international sanctions imposed on Iran.

"Those who are against good relations between Iran and Nigeria recently insinuated that the weapons were headed for Nigeria," Mottaki said, according to the news agency. "Fortunately, it has become almost clear for Nigerian officials that this wasn't the case."

Nigerian authorities have already grilled one Iranian national, Azimi Aghajani, who Mottaki said represents the company and resides in the African nation. A spokesman for the Nigerian Foreign Ministry said investigations into the shipment were continuing and he declined to comment on Mottaki's assertion that the issue had been resolved.

"Investigations are ongoing to determine the level of Iranian involvement and it will be inappropriate for us to comment before allowing them to be concluded," the spokesman, Ozo Nwobu, told the Associated Press.

The Obama administration has offered to help with the probe.

On Oct. 26, inspectors in the Lagos port of Apapa reportedly discovered 13 shipping containers full of rocket launchers, grenades, high-caliber guns and ammunition. The containers were packed in the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas and labeled as construction materials. According to media accounts, the shipment had arrived in Apapa months earlier but remained in storage awaiting inspection.

A 2007 Security Council resolution aimed at punishing Iran for refusing to curtail sensitive aspects of its nuclear research program bars Iran from directly or indirectly transferring "any arms or related material."

"If Nigeria finds at the conclusion of the investigation that there has been a breach of international law, a breach of U.N. sanctions, Nigeria as a member of the U.N. Security Council will do what is necessary," Nigerian Foreign Minister Odein Ajumogobia was quoted as saying Friday. Nigeria is one of 10 nonpermanent members of the council, which are elected for two-year terms.

Kaveh Afriasiabi, a former advisor to the Iranian government's negotiating team on nuclear weapons, said the arms shipment probably reflected Iran's desire to sell arms overseas despite the U.N. sanctions.

"I doubt that this has anything to do with Nigeria, which has fairly solid relations with Iran and potential for even nuclear cooperation," he said. "Rather, this is connected to the fact that in light of its growingly robust arms industry, Iran seeks a slice of the pie that is the lucrative world arms market."

Iran's ambassadors to Nigeria and the U.N. have also attempted to soothe the fears of Nigerians. Mottaki permitted Nigerian authorities to interrogate Aghajani. A second Iranian connected to the shipment is a diplomat who enjoys immunity, Ajumogobia was quoted as saying in the Nigerian daily newspaper This Day.

daragahi@latimes.com

Times staff writer Robyn Dixon in Johannesburg, South Africa, contributed to this report.

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