Putin hearts Leo

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is known for loving both cute things and adrenaline, so it's no surprise that he has taken to movie star Leonardo DiCaprio like a puppy to a new chew-toy. DiCaprio landed in St. Petersburg earlier this week to attend a tiger-conservation conference, but his journey to Russia was rife with excitement. His first Russia-bound plane was forced to make an emergency landing in New York after an engine failure. His second plane had to stop in Finland for unscheduled refueling because of strong headwinds.

According to the Telegraph, Putin spotted DiCaprio in the audience and deviated from his set speech to praise DiCaprio as a "real man" noting that "a person with less stable nerves could have decided against coming, could have read it as a sign - that it was not worth going."

DiCaprio apparently was also feeling the love, telling Putin about his Russian heritage. (A Russian film producer, noting Leo's uncanny resemblence to Vladimir Lenin, is reportedly looking to cast the Inception star as a re-animated version of the Soviet revolutionary in an upcoming sci-fi film.)

With all this love in the air, the tigers were not left out. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the International Tiger Conservation Forum ended with the approval of the Global Tiger Recovery Program, which aims to double the number of tigers in the wild. DiCaprio personally donated $1 million for tiger conservation (which should also make Malia Obama happy).

Of course, Putin's feelings about tigers are already well-known.

Russia is one of 13 countries where tigers still exist in the wild, along with Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burma, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Nepal, Thailand, and Vietnam.


Why is The Gambia picking a fight with Iran?

Tiny Gambia added itself to Iran's enemies this week when it abruptly cut diplomatic ties with the Islamic Republic and ordered its diplomats to leave the country. The announcement likely marks the end of Iranian investment in the African country which includes a $2 billion deal to provide commercial vehicles. Gambian President -- and perhaps soon king --  Yahya Jammeh gave no official reason for the move, but it's thought to be linked to last month's seizure of Iranian weapons in Nigeria, which some officials now say was bound for The Gambia. 

Initial speculation about the weapons suggested that they were eventually bound for Gaza. But why Gambia? Naturally, there are a few theories:

Alaeddin Borujerdi, head of the foreign-policy committee in Iran's parliament, said an "Iranian company" had struck an agreement to sell arms to Gambia several years ago and that the cache was sent "under international law." Gambia's decision to sever ties was made under pressure from the United States, he said, but would have little effect because Iran's diplomatic involvement there did not even amount to having an embassy.

However, Scott Lucas, editor of the Enduring America website and an Iran analyst at Birmingham University in the United Kingdom, says the arms may have been linked to a failed 2009 attempt to overthrow Jammeh, who himself came to power through a coup in 1994.

"Since the recent coup in Gambia, there have been factions vying for power," argues Lucas. "It is unclear to whom the arms were to be sent, but it is likely to be one of those factions. [...]

As to who might have provided these arms, Lucas also suspects Revolutionary Guards involvement: "The most likely explanation is that they had come from a faction within the Iranian government, in or connected to the Revolutionary Guards."  [...]
[Analyst Meir] Javedanfar says Iran has tried to cultivate ties with African countries with strategic waterways, possibly to give it the means of making retaliatory strikes against Western interests in the event of an armed conflict.

"One of the linchpins of Iran's Africa policy has been to try and improve relations with countries that have coasts on the important waterways," says Javedanfar, who points out that Gambia is wedged between Senegal on the Atlantic coast.

"This would be an important attraction to the Iranians. It would certainly add to Gambia's strategic value. There is also the fact that it is close to Senegal, which is an important Iranian ally. Any country that has access to important waterways and has important relations with Iran could later on be used to pressure the U.S. and to help Iran expand its influence in Africa."

Michael Singh wrote recently over at Shadow Government about the Iranian government's seemingly contradictory double-game in West Africa: building trade a diplomatic ties with local governments while simultaneously supporting militants and arms-smuggling groups in the region. Whatever the full story is, it seems that Tehran may have overplayed its hand in The Gambia.