Iran in search of foothold in energy-rich West Africa
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad left for Benin on Sunday for his first stop on a three-nation West African tour that will also take him to Ghana and Niger, the world's fourth-largest uranium producer.
Energy will be high on Ahmadinejad's agenda during the trip and Benin said talks with President Thomas Boni Yayi would also focus on education and agriculture.
According to the World Nuclear Association industry group, uranium from landlocked Niger is trucked to ports in neighbouring Benin for export, with most of it sent to Areva subsidiary Comurhex in France.
Iran is in need of uranium for its disputed nuclear programme, but Benin's foreign minister said Ahmadinejad's visits to the two countries were not linked.
The Iranian leader, set to leave office after June elections following his constitutionally limited two terms, will depart Benin on Monday following his Sunday afternoon arrival and travel to Niger.
He then heads to Ghana on Tuesday for his final stop before departing Wednesday. Ghana, seen as a rare example of stable democracy in often volatile West Africa, is a major producer of gold and cocoa with a nascent oil industry.
"During our trip to Benin, Niger and Ghana, we will ... take long strides in boosting comprehensive ties," Ahmadinejad was quoted as saying before leaving Tehran.
"Different memorandums of understanding in the fields of energy, commerce, culture, tourism and health will be signed."
A statement from Benin's foreign ministry on Sunday said Ahmadinejad's visit to the country of some nine million people was in connection with his position as chairman of the Non-Aligned Movement of countries.
Iran has also financed the construction of an ampitheatre at Benin's University of Abomey-Calavi, according to Foreign Minister Nassirou Arifari Bako.
Bako said Ahmadinejad's talks in Benin were not linked to his visit to Niger.
"We know nothing about the discussions with Niger," he said.
Niger is one of the world's top producers of uranium, which Iran has long been seeking to acquire for its controversial nuclear programme.
Western powers suspect Tehran of developing a covert programme aimed at having the capacity to produce a nuclear bomb. Iran denies this and says its work is being conducted for energy and medical purposes.
Niger has recently criticised its historical agreement with France, which gets most of its uranium from the former colony, and has demanded a fairer share of the profits generated by uranium ore mining.
Niger's foreign minister visited Tehran in February.
Ahmadinejad has previously visited around a dozen African countries.
Most of these have been to seek support for Iran at the United Nations, which has imposed four rounds of sanctions on Tehran over its nuclear programme, specifically its refusal to stop enriching uranium.
On Tuesday, Iran unveiled a new uranium production facility and two mines, only days after talks with world powers on its disputed nuclear programme again ended in deadlock.
Iran's relations with African countries have not always been smooth.
A diplomatic dispute hurt ties between Iran and Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation and largest oil producer, when weapons shipped from Iran were seized at a Lagos port in October 2010.
An alleged Iranian Revolutionary Guard member was accused of being one of the suspects behind the shipment, which Iran said was destined for Gambia, though Banjul denied being the intended recipient. The weapons had been labelled as building materials.