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Iran in Africa: Ideology comes at the expense of diplomacy and business

By Sara Saïdi
Posted on Thursday, 7 January 2021 17:46

Tohid Afzali (R), head of the political department from the Iranian embassy in Kenya, and Mahmoud Majlesain Cultural counsellor from the Iranian embassy in Kenya attend a news conference at Iran's cultural council in Nairobi, Kenya, 8 January 2020. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Since 1979, Iran’s presence on the African continent has been driven by anti-Americanism and efforts to spread Shiite ideology, damaging economic and political relations in the process.

Relations between Iran and Africa were stepped up under Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s (1941-1979) rule. As the Cold War raged on in the 1970s, the Shah, allied with the West, hoped to stem the spread of communism in the recently decolonised continent. Pahlavi thus broadened Iran’s ties with a number of African countries, including Algeria, Egypt, Morocco and South Africa.

Benefiting from the first oil shock and looking to expand its influence, Iran provided financial and economic assistance to Ethiopia, Senegal, Somalia, Sudan and Zaire. “Africa was however just one aspect of the Pahlavi regime’s foreign policy and not a priority,” says Clément Therme, a post-doctoral research fellow at Sciences Po Paris and an Iran expert.

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The establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979 brought about a new era in Iranian-African relations. In the 1980s, the new regime sought to export its Islamic Revolution, marking the beginning of an expansionist policy combining Shiite ideology and anti-imperialism.

Accordingly, the Islamic Republic joined the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and billed itself as a defender of oppressed countries contending with Western – especially US – domination. In 1986, in the midst of the Iran-Iraq War, Ali Khamenei, then president of Iran, toured Africa for the first time, visiting Angola and Mozambique to hold talks on oil supplies, industrial cooperation and agricultural development. The trip was conducted with a view to cementing Tehran’s influence and shoring up support against Saddam Hussein.

Failed economic policy

According to Alhadji Bouba Nouhou, an associate researcher at the University of Bordeaux’s Montesquieu Centre for Political Research, Iran swiftly developed an economic policy seeking to “weaken the embargo” imposed by the United States in 1984 and particularly following new sanctions in 1995.

In line with this strategy, then president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani paid a visit to Africa in 1991 and again in 1996. His successor, Mohammad Khatami, repeated the exercise in January 2005. Iran’s goal at that time was to target the West African market while maintaining friendly ties with South Africa.

During Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency (2005-2013), the Islamic Republic used development assistance as a way to build influence in Africa. As Nouhou points out, in March 2005 the country signed a $1.5m agreement providing budgetary support to Ghana’s government.

From automotive assembly plants to oil supply, gas production, electricity and consumer goods, Iran has gradually increased its trade with Africa and is developing military cooperation initiatives there, particularly in the naval sphere. The country has also spent significant sums building social and health infrastructure, especially through the Iranian Red Crescent Society.

In 2017, Iran’s then foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif celebrated the opening of a hospital in Kampala, Uganda, financed in part by the Islamic Republic. According to Masoud Kamali Ardakani, the former director general of Iran’s Trade Promotion Organization (TPO)’s Office of Arabian and African Countries, trade between Iran and Africa reached a record high of $1.2bn in the 2017-18 financial year.

Despite this growth, in 2018 Iran accounted for just 0.1% of Africa’s total trade with the world. Iranian exports amounted to $600m for the 2018-19 financial year.

In October 2020, the new director general of Iran’s TPO’s Office of Arabian and African Countries, Farzad Piltan, said  the organisation had plans to redefine its strategy to help Iran benefit from the African market.

Iran’s strategy in Africa is politically driven and not so much based on an economic rationale,” Iran expert Therme says. “It has had limited success with its economic strategy, except in South Africa, where its ties run deeper.”

Bypassing US sanctions

To bypass US sanctions, Iran “is forced to find grey areas that aren’t closely monitored by the United States in order to carry out transactions,” says Alex Vatanka, director of the Middle East Institute’s Iran programme.

He adds that Iran’s traditional market is Europe, and, in recent years, East Asia, especially China. “Iran’s Africa policy is a side project connected with a broader scheme to compete with the United States,” Vatanka says.

And Iran is not trying to hide it. In 2012, at the 16th Summit of the NAM, held in Tehran, the Islamic Republic reaffirmed its right to develop a peaceful nuclear programme. “When Ahmadinejad came into office, he had hoped to find diplomatic allies that would support Iran at the United Nations, but that didn’t really pan out,” Vatanka says.

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Iran then set out to prove that it was neither isolated on the world stage nor the sole country to have problems with the US.

At home, Tehran has sought to portray itself as a foreign power to be reckoned with, but the citizenry has stopped buying into such propaganda, especially where Africa is concerned. Indeed, Iranians are not seeing any return on investment from their government’s Africa policy.

Vatanka calls Iran’s ideology-based foreign policy in Africa a disaster: “It’s costing Iran money, work and markets. This is true both in Africa and elsewhere.”

Arms trafficking and severed diplomatic ties

Iranian diplomacy in Africa has, in fact, shown its limitations. Iran, which has 25 embassies across the continent, must also contend with Saudi Arabia. As it happens, the Sunni kingdom takes a dim view of the Shiite country’s activity in Africa.

Also Egypt and Morocco have expressed concerns about Iran’s religious proselytism, which even led Morocco to sever diplomatic relations with Tehran on two occasions. The first diplomatic break, in 2009, was due to Iran’s religious “activism”. The second, in 2018, involved Morocco accusing Iran of backing the Polisario Front in the Western Sahara through the Lebanese group Hezbollah.

Iran has regularly come under scrutiny for alleged arms trafficking activities in Africa. Senegal cut off diplomatic ties with Iran after the seizing an arms shipment in Lagos in 2010, but it later restored them in 2013.

After Saudi Arabia executed Shiite Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr in 2016, it was Djibouti and Somalia’s turn to announce their severing of diplomatic relations with Iran. Sudan, though a longstanding ally of Tehran, followed suit.

The cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran has been transposed to Africa,” Therme says. As a matter of fact, both powers have been engaged in a proxy war in Yemen since 2015.

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All the countries that recently broke off ties with Iran have, moreover, joined the Saudi coalition fighting the Houthis, who are themselves supported by the Islamic Republic. Morocco, for its part, suspended its military involvement in 2019.

If Tehran’s meddling as well as its rivalry with Saudi Arabia have damaged economic relations between Iran and Africa, the United States’ withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and the re-imposition of US sanctions in 2018 have further complicated matters. Indeed, as Iran continues to weather an unprecedented economic crisis, how can it compete with the likes of China or Russia, powers gaining ground on the African continent?