Five people were stopped at the airport with Rs 4.5 million in foreign currency supposedly to pay off a ransom for a 17-year-old held in Iran. The episode, and the attention it has received, has got a rare rebuke from Iranian diplomats. It comes amid a thaw in ties between Iran and Mauritius after decades in the deep-freeze.
1) The oil romance
On March 11, five people were stopped at the airport trying to smuggle Rs4.5 million in foreign currency out of the country, arguing that the money was to allegedly pay a ransom for a 17-year-old being held in Iran. While the credibility of the group has come under question, the attention given to it by Mauritian media has earned a rare rebuke from Iranian diplomats. The reason for the sensitivity is that both Iran and Mauritius are currently reviving their bilateral relationship that had been moribund since 1979.
The ties between Tehran and Port Louis date back to before Mauritian independence. During the Second World War in June 1941, Reza Shah – the ruler of Iran at the time – received a joint demand from the UK and the Soviet Union to expel all German nationals from Iran. For London, Iran was seen as key to the defence of its Indian colony while for the USSR, Iran was a key route for supplies sent by its Western allies. When Reza Shah refused, both powers invaded Iran and forced him from power making way for his son, 21-year-old Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, to become the new Shah of Iran. Hustled on a British ship, the old king was bundled off to Mauritius to stay at Château Val Ory in Moka for seven months.
His exile was an unhappy one, with Reza Shah refusing to leave the Château throughout his stay in Mauritius. “I am a prisoner and must behave like one,” Reza Shah would lament to his son-in-law. He eventually died of a heart attack in 1944 in South Africa. But this was not the end of the Iranian-Mauritian relationship, which would deepen significantly in the 1970s around one commodity: oil. By the 1970s, Iran under the Shah had switched its policy from fighting pan-Arabist regimes to fighting the spread of communism; and following the 1973 war between Egypt and Israel, Arab states curtailed oil sales to Apartheid South Africa and backed the African National Congress (ANC) in return for African states backing the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). With the Arab states reducing oil sales to South Africa, Iran quickly filled the void: by 1973, Tehran was supplying 30 per cent of South Africa’s oil. By 1978, it had grown to 90 per cent.
Mauritius piggybacked on this realignment of oil. With a US diplomat previously posted to Port Louis and then political counsellor at the US embassy in Tehran serving as a go-between, in 1973, Mauritius signed an oil deal with Tehran. Under that deal, Mauritius got cheaper oil from Iran – up to 85 per cent of its oil at the time – and a three-year moratorium (1973-1976) on Mauritius paying for its Iranian oil. The deal was credited by the Mauritian government for helping it weather the oil shock of 1973- 74 – whereas Western states saw their oil prices rise by 400 per cent, Mauritius only saw a 40 per cent rise because of the deal.
Senior cabinet ministers at the time such as Sir Veerasamy Ringadoo credited the Iran deal for preventing an oil shortage in Mauritius. And the idea was to deepen this relationship: in 1974, Tehran wanted to reach an agreement with Port Louis where Mauritius would barter sugar in exchange for Iranian oil. However, that did not work since Mauritius had already allocated its sugar output to its UK, European and Canadian markets. So much did Port Louis make of its deal with Iran that oil became a subject of local politics as well: the MMM opposition in 1977 promised that when in power it would sign oil deals with other countries such as Iraq.
2) The 1979 revolution and the deep-freeze
For Mauritius, the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran came as a setback, taking away one of its most reliable suppliers of cheap oil. The new regime turned off the oil spigot to Pretoria – and Mauritius’ benefiting from it – switching to supporting the ANC. But it also opened new pressures on Port Louis. That same year saw the hostage crisis break out when radical students stormed the US embassy in Tehran and took US diplomats hostage demanding the return of the Shah of Iran who had fled the country. US diplomats elsewhere responded by asking other states to pressure Iran into releasing the hostages.
In Mauritius, this meant Port Louis sending cables to Tehran. On November 16, 1979, foreign minister Harold Walter sent just such a cable. When asked to send a second, more strongly worded cable, Walter demurred and instead prime minister Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam sent one on November 24, stating, “I am deeply concerned with the worsening of relations between Iran and the United States of America and I fear that this might pose a threat to world peace. I wish, therefore, in the name of our friendly relations, to renew the appeal made by my foreign ministry to your foreign minister that the hostages held in the American embassy in Tehran be released on humanitarian grounds”.
Before the 1979 revolution, Iran was lauded as an important economic partner for Mauritius. After that, the relationship went into the deep-freeze. As Iranian ambassador to Mauritius Hassan Alibakhshi put it in an interview in October 2022, “after the revolution, we wanted to strengthen our cooperation with Mauritius, but we did not receive a positive response from Mauritius in this regard and the enormous potential that exists between our two countries remained untapped”. By the early 2000s, while some Mauritian politicians such as (then foreign minister -ed.) Madun Dulloo in 2006 said that he supported the US position on Iran’s nuclear programme, the Mauritian foreign ministry preferred staying out of that business, instead repeating its preference for a solution mediated by the IAEA.
3) The current thaw
The current warming of ties between Mauritius and Iran has less to do with Mauritius, and more to do with the periodic swings in foreign policy in Tehran. The 2005-2013 period of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad saw Iran reach to African states, partly to build support for Iran within the UN, and partly to circumvent US sanctions by deepening economic links elsewhere. That came to end under his successor Hassan Rouhani (2013-2021) who turned away from Africa and instead focused on reaching an accommodation with the US over Tehran’s nuclear program. In 2018, this made itself felt in Mauritius when the Rouhani administration briefly flirted with the idea of selling off Château Val Ory in Moka as part of its drawdown in Africa that would have seen the sale of other buildings owned by Tehran such as the embassy buildings in Nairobi and Lagos.
However, it wasn’t just a lack of interest in Tehran, but some disastrous diplomacy from Mauritius which was also to blame for the two states not deepening their ties before. And the shadow of former housing and lands minister Showkutally Soodhun looms large in this story. As part of the government, Soodhun lobbied hard for Mauritius to line up behind Tehran’s regional rival, Saudi Arabia, and on occasion seemed to hijack Mauritian foreign policy. In 2016, speaking to a Saudi publication, Soodhun said that “Iran is known for its intervention in the affairs of the Arab and Islamic countries. It does not respect diplomatic norms, nor the accepted behaviour of good neighbourliness”. Invited to Saudi military exercises aimed at deterring Tehran, Soodhun joined in as an observer and in June 2017, Soodhun unilaterally announced that Mauritius had joined in the Saudi blockade of Qatar, in part to force the smaller Gulf country to take a stronger position against Iran.
The Mauritian government had to rush communiques to the Qatari government, Al Jazeera and Le Monde to deny that this was the Mauritian government. “Mauritius has not joined any so-called coalition against Iran,” then minister Nando Bodha had to clarify in parliament on June 30, 2017. In October of that same year, the foreign ministry and the prime minister’s office hosted Iranian ambassador Mohammad Moniri Nik for a round of talks on trade and damage control (Iran is now a minor trading partner exporting Rs15 million in paraffin wax, wafers and dried fruit to Mauritius in 2015 – a far cry from the halcyon days of the 1970s when Mauritius bought almost all its oil from Tehran).
The current thaw comes with the collapse of the US-Iranian nuclear deal (as Trump walked away from the 2015 JCPOA) and fresh sanctions on Tehran, the post-2021 Raisi government having once again turned to Africa for pretty much the same reasons as the previous Ahmadinejad government did. And one way to do that is to deepen trade links with Africa which under Rouhani plunged to just 0.19 per cent of Iranian trade. Hence in August 2022 labour minister Soodesh Callichurn heading a delegation to Iran to discuss trade and economic links and in March this year fishing minister Sudesh Maudhoo holding talks with an Iranian delegation to discuss the possibility of Tehran – which is one of the largest coastal fishing nations in the Indian Ocean – to help Mauritius with its own fishing industry. Other longer-term ambitions are for Mauritius to take advantage of growing Iranian interest in Africa by working together with Iranian financial centres such as Kish to route Iranian investments into Africa via Mauritius. And Val Ory has gone from a burden on the Iranian budget into a potential draw for Iranian tourists to Mauritius. “Now I can say that in Iran no one thinks of selling it anymore, and the option of selling it is no longer relevant. Subsequently, we seek to present an adequate plan for its optimal use, and we are working in this direction,” Alibakhshi wrote in an op-ed in l’express in January this year.
With both Iran and Mauritius now looking to resuscitate a bilateral relationship that once was one of Mauritius’ most important foreign ties, questionable episodes like what happened at the airport and its equally questionable claims is eliciting a strong reaction. Neither state can afford yet another misstep from affecting this new thaw.