By Tesfa-alem Tekle
November 29, 2008 (ADDIS ABABA) — An Eritrean opposition website, selfi-democracy.com, said that Iran’s submarines have deployed an undisclosed number of armed Iranian troops and weapons in the Eritrean port town of Assab.
The unconfirmed report claims that Iran recently sent soldiers and also a number of long-range missiles after Iran signed an accord with Eritrea to revamp the Russian-built Assab Oil refinery.
But the opposition source also pointed to some trepidation within the Eritrean regime, indicating that some high-ranking members are saying that the president is playing with fire and that the consequences for Eritrea could be grave.
Eritrean President Isayas Afwerki visited Iran last May, where he met with President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. At a press conference after the meeting, Ahmadinejad said that the two countries share common views on regional issues and on ways to resist hegemony. “We’ve held fruitful talks on different subjects relevant to bilateral ties, mutual investment in the agriculture, industry and energy sectors and regional and international cooperation,” he said.
The Eritrean opposition website now reports that Iran will refine its crude oil in Assab to cover shortages it faces at home, which will benefit Eritrea by not having to import expensive refined products.
But the report argued, “The motivation behind this deal is believed to be more political and more strategic than economic.”
“Iran, due to its conflict with the West and in particular with the US, is under embargo which may be further extended and tightened if it continues with its nuclear programs,” it continued. “Thus, Iran may be trying to find some renegade states to help her break the embargo and who could be a better partner for this than Eritrea’s President Isayas.”
Eritrea and the United States have also backed opposite sides in the war in Somalia, which erupted at the end of 2006.
“Isayas’ personal blind hate of the US administration and everything it stands for is boundless and he will spare no effort to upset the Americans,” added the Eritrean opposition.
It also said that Isayas, with the cooperation of some Somali Islamist groups, are also colluding to control the Bab El Mandeb Straights in case of any escalation of conflict with the United States and Israel.
The United States has moved additional naval forces off the coast of Somalia in response to piracy and the looming defeat of the U.S.-backed Transitional Federal Government.
Meanwhile, four NATO unmanned surveillance planes were reported to have flown for about half an hour earlier this week in Eritrea’s Red Sea region.