A local hotel where the state has a minority shareholding was chosen as Ahmadinejad delegation’s residence for the duration of his stay. At least three floors were cleared to accommodate the Iranian leader, who is said to have sent expensive State House carpets in his country to a museum and replaced them with cheaper ones when he came into office.
On arrival at the airport on Thursday, he was welcomed by the Muslim community in the country and members of an apostolic sect, long-time allies of Zanu PF.
President Robert Mugabe, who was also at the airport to welcome his guest, had found his match. The two had a lot in common. Like Mugabe, Ahmadinejad’s feelings toward the West and the United States in particular, are bitter. For Mugabe and his new best friend — Ahmadinejad — the US is a threat to the existence of smaller nations. Mugabe and Ahmadinejad, though from different religious backgrounds, share the same ideas.
Ahmadinejad, like Mugabe, is anti-gay. He told Colombia university students after accepting a debate challenge from the college: “We don’t have homosexuals like in your country. We don’t have that in our country. We don’t have this phenomenon; I don’t know who’s told you we have it.”
This prompted laughter and booing from the audience. Later, the university’s president Lee Bollinger described the Iranian leader as a “cruel and petty dictator” saying his views were “astonishingly uneducated”.
On the human rights front, Mugabe and Ahmadinejad also score very low marks.
According to a report by Human Rights Watch, “since President Ahmadinejad came to power, treatment of detainees has worsened in Evin Prison as well as in detention centres operated clandestinely by the judiciary, the Ministry of Information, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps”.
Mugabe’s own human rights record is not inspiring. He stands accused of stealing at least two elections and perpetrating electoral violence. A number of activists have been kidnapped and tortured at the hands of the state.
Both Mugabe and Ahmadinejad were teachers before occupying the highest offices of politics and have been educated up to a Masters degree. They both love anti-West rhetoric. Barely a week goes by without an attack on the West over sanctions and other evils from both leaders.
Zimbabwe and Iran have sanctions hanging over their administrations. Similarities aside, their meeting presented a chance for political bonding. For Mugabe and his Iranian counterpart, it was a chance to jointly stick it to the West.
A few hours after his arrival, Ahmadinejad was already spewing anti-West statements. That naturally must have pleased Mugabe and his party. Mugabe in turn also blessed Ahmadinejad’s nuclear policy that has brought Iran face-to-face with United Nations sanctions. The political bonding was going well!
As on Thursday, the following morning the capital woke up to the deafening sounds of choppers circling around the central business centre. Apart from the usual ground security comprising a motorcade and military marksmen, air support had been added to the Iranian leader’s security on top of a bulletproof motorcade.
This was a first in Zimbabwe’s record of VIP protection. No other foreign head of state has ever gotten such security. Wherever Ahmadinejad went, there would be a chopper following the presidential motorcade.
Earlier on, fighter jets had been flying over the skies as if to discourage an imminent attack.
But not everyone was thrilled by his presence in the country. The MDC headed by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai attacked Ahmadinejad’s visit saying he had come as a guest of Mugabe and his Zanu PF party. Tsvangirai and ministers from his party treated the visit as a non-event and naturally shunned the Iranian leader. They described the visit as a “colossal scandal”.
After officially opening the trade fair, Ahmadinejad was off to Uganda on a slightly different mission — to play global politics.
At an upcoming UN Security Council meeting that will determine whether sanctions imposed on the Iranian regime stay or go, Iran will be in need of an ally and Uganda is a convenient candidate. Uganda is currently a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council.
As Ahmadinejad arrived in Uganda, he found his new host, President Yoweri Museveni, sending mixed messages on nuclear enrichment programmes.
Museveni said: “We should work for a nuclear weapons-free world. This means that those who have these weapons should work to get rid of them under an internationally agreed and verifiable treaty and that those who do not possess them should not seek to acquire them.”
In another speech, Museveni said he supports every nation’s “right” to be able to use nuclear energy to generate power.
His statements did not give Iran a clear position on how Uganda would vote — for or against new sanctions that US President Barack Obama’s administration wants imposed on Iran during the Security Council meeting.
On a consoling note, Museveni said: “We salute the independent foreign policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
Ahmadinejad is accused of unrelentingly pursuing uranium enrichment for nuclear use and not respecting human rights.
After failing to get key support from Uganda, Ahmadinejad must be wishing Zimbabwe was a non-permanent member on the UN Security Council. That way, Mugabe would vote against renewal of sanctions against Iran, just to spite the West and in the words of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 protagonist, Yossarian, “for the sake of it”.