Members of Zimbabwe's ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) held meetings with top Iranian and Chinese military officials in early March with the intent of strengthening military cooperation. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe hosted a delegation headed by China's People's Liberation Army Adm. Tong Shiping from March 7 to March 10. Defense Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa visited Tehran from March 9 to March 13 to meet with his Iranian counterpart, Ahmad Vahidi, as well as with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi.
Though all parties kept their rhetoric vague, Zimbabwe likely signed deals with these countries for the delivery of military equipment for ZANU-PF's military arm, the Zimbabwean Defense Forces. These actions are part of ZANU-PF's efforts to strengthen its military ahead of Zimbabwe's presidential election, scheduled to occur no later than April 2013. With the election process sure to be rife with controversy, the ruling party is taking steps to ensure its continued dominance through military control.
ZANU-PF wants to hold the election as soon as possible for the sake of the ailing, 88-year-old Mugabe. The effort has been delayed, however, by internal disagreements between ZANU-PF and its government coalition partner, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), as well as by criticism from international bodies. Mugabe is often the subject of international condemnation, but he remains the only Zimbabwean politician known to be capable of keeping his party united for an election. ZANU-PF leaders hope he will be re-elected one last time before passing power to a member of his inner circle -- potentially Mnangagwa, whose faction is in a strong position since the August 2011 death of rival power broker Solomon Mujuru.
ZANU-PF has depended on its security apparatus to guarantee previous elections, most recently in 2008, when the party allegedly killed hundreds of dissenters and displaced thousands more to secure victories in presidential and parliamentary elections. Moreover, the recent overthrow of the Ivorian government and internationally assisted regime change in Libya has made the ruling party wary of a similar intervention in Zimbabwe, however unlikely that may be.
China has supplied more than one-third of Zimbabwe's weapons in the past; this share is set to increase now as the country's other historical suppliers, the United Kingdom and Libya, have respectively refused and become unable to continue their shipments. Iran, eager to benefit from Zimbabwe's gold and diamond resources, also appears accommodating to ZANU-PF's military supply requests.
Zimbabwe's geography poses a challenge: The country is landlocked, and most of its trade must pass through the South African port of Durban. Since South Africa wants a regime in Zimbabwe that is pliant to its interests, it is likely to restrain any military shipments intended for Zimbabwe. South Africa has exercised this option before. In the middle of Zimbabwe's 2008 election crisis, authorities uncovered a shipment of small arms and explosives sent from China. After extensive civil protests, the high court in Durban refused to allow the shipment to be moved overland. The shipment reportedly instead moved through Angola, and the weapons may yet have reached Zimbabwe.
The incident may have prompted ZANU-PF to consider alternative shipping routes, but there are costs associated with each. Mozambique's smaller ports constitute one nearby alternative trade corridor, but South Africa has a commanding presence there as well. Routes through ports in Tanzania or Angola will likely be less resistant but will increase travel time. Air transit, though considerably more expensive, also is an option.
The military remains ZANU-PF's best recourse to ensuring its power, especially as the party faces sustained internal and external opposition because of its continued resistance to political reforms. The ruling party thus has little alternative to its reliance on military partners to maintain political control.
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Zimbabwe's Possible Arms Deals with China and Iran is republished with permission of STRATFOR.