Iran’s ties to Africa

by February 2022
Jacob Zuma, former President of South Africa and Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran. Photo credit: Wikimedia / Official website of the supreme leader of Iran

Although Iran’s efforts in Africa often go unnoticed, they are an important part of the Islamic Republic’s bid to expand its influence, both regionally and globally. Lifting the sanctions on Iran would make it easier for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to pursue its goals in the continent.

The US recently agreed to allow South Korea to send at least $63 million to an Iranian government-linked company, to settle overdue damages. Many commentators subsequently claimed that it is only a matter of time before the Biden administration permits the release of some $7 billion owed by Seoul for oil shipments, the payments for which have been blocked since the Trump administration exited the nuclear agreement and slapped sanctions on Tehran. Irrespective to what priorities the Islamic Republic would allocate the infusion of scarce foreign exchange, many suspect that the IRGC, especially its elite Qods Force (QF), will get a good chunk of the funds. Some have even speculated as to the mischief that the money could wreck in Iraq, Syria, and the Gulf, in addition to sustaining the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. Few analysts, however, have paid much attention to Africa, which Iran has long targeted as part of its ambitions to expand influence beyond the Middle East—and where a little bit of money can go a very long way.

In efforts against its rivals, especially the Sunni Arab countries, Iran has also exploited its inroads into the small Shiite communities in the continent, whether African or diaspora Lebanese.

Same Old Story

Even if we leave aside the millennial history of Persian navigators and merchants interacting with the nations and peoples of East Africa, modern Iran has long cultivated a strategic interest in the region. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, in response to the spread of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s radical Pan-Arabism, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi increasingly aligned his foreign policy with those of the conservative, pro-Western Arab monarchies—especially after Egyptian-trained officers overthrew the monarchy in Yemen in 1962. At the same time, while Israel pursued openings in Ethiopia and the newly independent African states (see my Jerusalem Strategic Tribune article “Israel’s African Comeback,” August 2021), Iran sought an informal regional alliance with Ethiopia, then ruled by the Emperor Haile Selassie.

Following the overthrow of Selassie in 1974 and his subsequent execution, as well as the succession of a moderate regime in Egypt under Anwar Sadat after Nasser’s death in 1970, the Shah’s policy shifted focus from countering Pan-Arabism to containing communism in an attempt to prevent the spread of radicalism within the Greater Middle East and to curry favor with the US. Thus, Iran joined Saudi Arabia and others in supplying arms to Somali dictator Mohamed Siad Barré in the 1977–1978 Ogaden War against the new Ethiopian regime, which had aligned with the Soviet Union, and the Cuban forces that fought alongside it.

During this same period—and for similar Cold War containment considerations—Iran also supported the apartheid regime in South Africa, supplying over 90% of the country’s petroleum imports by 1978, the last full year of the Shah’s reign. After the Shah was overthrown, the Islamic Republic of Iran reversed his policies, breaking diplomatic and commercial ties with apartheid South Africa, and proclaiming its support for the then-outlawed African National Congress, a gesture from which it continues to reap dividends four decades later—even though, in actuality, the new regime in Tehran was too consumed with its own internal challenges to do much to support the struggle against apartheid.

It was only in the late 1980s, after having fought Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in a bloody eight-year war, that the Iranian regime under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was able to turn its attention again to Africa. The first major breakthrough occurred in Sudan, after an Islamist-supported military coup overthrew the elected government of Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi in 1989, replacing it with a dictatorship led by Omar al-Bashir. Notwithstanding the Sunni–Shia schism, Khartoum and Tehran made common cause; following a 1991 state visit by President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Tehran agreed to finance Sudan’s purchase of some $300 million in Chinese weapons, replacing the military aid that the US had cut off. This was the heyday of the late Sudanese Islamist leader Hassan al-Turabi, who convened a series of global conferences of Islamists in the mid-1990s, a period which coincided with Osama bin Laden enjoying refuge in Sudan. Iran’s investment in Sudan eventually soured, however, in the aftermath of 9/11 as the Bashir regime took advantage of the opportunity to begin improving its relationship with Washington—and as Sudan gradually realized (for various reasons, including Israeli air strikes) that the cost of the association with Iran had become too high. The leadership in Khartoum switched sides and turned to Saudi Arabia for support, and by the end of the Obama administration, the country had a roadmap to removing itself from the Americans’ list of state sponsors of terrorism. The process culminated in 2017 with the Trump administration’s lifting of the two decades-old economic embargo.

A similar fate met the Islamic Republic’s attempt to establish a strategic beachhead in Eritrea, taking advantage of the country’s political and economic isolation following its 1998–2000 border war with neighboring Ethiopia. Although the conflict itself was inconclusive, the impact on the smaller country was far more devastating than it was on its larger neighbor. After Ethiopia refused to abide by the international arbitral award of the disputed territory to Eritrea, Asmara was accused of helping Islamist militants in Somalia and elsewhere as a way to hit back at Addis Ababa. As a result, the subregional Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD) and then the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on the Eritrean regime. Increasingly isolated, Asmara was susceptible to overtures from Tehran, which led to increasingly cozy military ties, including Iranian naval vessels calling on the Eritrean Red Sea port of Assab. This, in turn, stoked fears of the strategic locale being used as a transit point for arms and other support that the mullahs were providing militant groups, ranging from Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the Houthis in Yemen. However, a regime change in 2018 brought to power a new government in Ethiopia, which, in a deal brokered by the United Arab Emirates, not only made peace with Eritrea but, indeed, also sealed an alliance whereby Eritrea agreed to provide military aid to Ethiopia against internal opponents in the Tigray region. Once again, Iran was left with little to show for the resources it had expended in securing a toehold in Africa.

Countries in the Greater Middle East and beyond will need to remain vigilant against Iranian attempts to secure conventional military access in Africa.

A Different Approach in the Past Two Decades

While neither the Shah’s efforts at a transregional geopolitical play nor the mullahs’ attempts to achieve significant influence through an allied regime on the African continent panned out over the long term for Iran, Tehran persisted in its quest to break into Africa and shifted its focus in the early 2000s.

During the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005–2013), whose very first foreign trip was to attend an African Union (AU) summit in The Gambia, Iran increasingly copied from the soft-power playbook of Western countries, using development assistance to build influence. In the wake of Ahmadinejad’s meetings with AU leaders in Banjul and his subsequent visits to various African countries, both the Iranian Red Crescent Society and the Imam Khomeini Relief Aid saw their clinics and other medical programs multiply across the continent. Meanwhile, Al-Mustafa International University, a clerical institution directly controlled by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (and sanctioned by the US Treasury Department in 2020 for facilitating recruitment to the Quds Force), opened branches in a number of African countries, even in several with negligible Muslim and even smaller Shiite populations, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Ahmadinejad was not reticent about the potential he saw in Africa for advancing Iran’s revolutionary agenda, telling one visiting African diplomat that “an extensive and profound cooperation between Iran and Africa will go a long way to modify international relations and regional balance.”

Under Ahmadinejad’s supposedly moderate successor, Hassan Rouhani, Iran took advantage of the sanctions relief it received under the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to double its outgoing trade volume with Africa to $1.7 billion by 2018. Tehran offered export incentives to about 30 countries to sign large-scale trade deals to purchase Iranian liquified petroleum gas (LPG), iron, steel, cement, and other products. When the Trump administration pulled out of the nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif crisscrossed Africa multiple times to strike barter deals to circumvent US restrictions on banking transactions. The diplomat was so successful that, by the time President Joseph Biden took office, one study found that “the implementation of agricultural, technical, and engineering projects accounted for the bulk of Iran’s economic activities in Africa.”

These activities, conducted by knowledge-based companies known as Danyesh Bonyan, are technically considered private-sector, although the Iranian government invests in them heavily, and, because they are often in the development sphere, they are less vulnerable to sanctions. The extradition from Cabo Verde to the US of Columbian businessman Alex Saab, who was arrested in late 2021 during a stopover on a private plane bound for Tehran and is alleged to be the main intermediary between Venezuela and Iran, may shed more light on this shadowy barter economy.

While Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi, has not yet made a visit to Africa, he has already signaled his intention to continue the pursuit of opportunity there, declaring shortly after his inauguration: “In the new Iranian government, all our capabilities will be devoted to deepening cooperation with African countries.”

Security Risks Amplified

Countries in the Greater Middle East and beyond will thus need to remain vigilant against Iranian attempts to secure conventional military access in Africa, especially along strategic waterways like the Red Sea approaches to the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea. This is what Iran had previously enjoyed in Eritrea. The more substantial risk to African and global security, however, comes from Tehran’s ties with extremist groups on the continent that the mullahs have quietly cultivated, using the cover of their diplomatic, economic, and developmental forays.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei with Commander Of The Quds Force Of The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Esmail Qaani. Photo Credit: SalamPix/ABACA.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei with Commander Of The Quds Force Of The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Esmail Qaani. Photo Credit: SalamPix/ABACA.

In this context, it is especially noteworthy that in choosing a new Qods Force commander after Qasem Soleimani was terminated in a 2020 US drone strike, Ayatollah Khamenei picked the slain terrorist’s deputy, ICRG Brigadier General Esmail Qaani. Qaani was placed on the US sanctions list in 2012 because his responsibilities included “financial disbursements to IRGC-QF elements, including elements in Africa, as well as to various terrorist groups, including Hizballah.” Specifically, US authorities linked Qaani to a weapons shipment seized in Nigeria in 2010 and destined for The Gambia—from where it would presumably have been distributed to militants throughout the Sahel and neighboring areas in West Africa. It consisted of 240 tons of rockets, mortar shells, grenades, and other ammunition. According to intelligence sources, Qaani has direct experience in training and mobilizing so-called “resistance forces” in Africa. Tansim, a news agency closely linked to the IRGC, made explicit Qaani’s background and the linkage to Africa in a report published following his appointment:

If the IRGC-QF can transform this region into the strategic depth of the Islamic Republic of Iran, along with security interests, Iran will share the economic interests of the African continent. This is perhaps the main mission of the Qods Force during the tenure of General Qaani.

The same report went on to cite instructions from the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei given to Iranian military commanders that it was not enough “to be content with our region,” but that they needed to embrace a “broad view of the geography of resistance” that included Africa. The notion is that the regime would find individuals and groups on the continent who share its enmity toward the US and other Western countries and who might ally with it, even if just temporarily, in operations that undermine the interests of these enemies or at least cause them “to dramatically increase spending in the region”—thus drawing resources away that might otherwise be used against Iran directly.

Another aim of the Iranian expansion into Africa is to counter regional rivals, including Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, as well as Turkey, which have themselves been increasingly active on the continent in recent years. Last year, for example, Ethiopian security services discovered a 15-member cell, armed with a cache of weapons and explosives, preparing an attack on the Emirati embassy in Addis Ababa. According to The New York Times, “American and Israeli officials say the operation was the work of Iran, whose intelligence service activated a sleeper cell in Addis Ababa [in the fall of 2020] with orders to gather intelligence also on the embassies of the United States and Israel.”

A year earlier, a report by the UN-appointed Panel of Experts to the United Nations Security Council detailed how Ismael Djidah, a former member of the Séléka armed group that briefly seized power in the Central African Republic (CAR), had, together with the group’s leader and self-declared CAR President Michel Djotodia, “created an armed group to carry out violent acts against Western, Saudi and Israeli interests in several African countries, including the Central African Republic, with support from the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of the Islamic Republic of Iran.” The report also alleges that Djotodia met with Qods Force commanders in Iran in 2016 and agreed to help them set up a terrorist network in exchange for assistance in reclaiming power, an accusation he has denied despite two incriminating handwritten letters obtained by the UN panel.

In efforts against its rivals, especially the Sunni Arab countries, Iran has also exploited its inroads into the small Shiite communities in the continent, whether African or diaspora Lebanese. This has been cause for concern, for example, in Morocco, which broke diplomatic relations with Iran on two occasions. Although the reasons were officially political—in 2009 due to Iranian claims that Bahrain was part of its territory, and then in 2018, because of Iran’s backing of Hezbollah in aiding the Polisario separatists in Western Sahara—Morocco has been apprehensive that Iran could stir up tensions among the kingdom’s Shiite minority. There is also resentment of Tehran’s proselytism aimed at the Moroccan kingdom and its neighbors, where Islam has historically been guided by moderate Sunni Muslim perspectives, including the Maliki school of Islamic jurisprudence, the Ash‘ari theology, and Sufi mysticism.

Protesters hold banners calling for the release of Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky in Nigeria. Photo credit: REUTERS.
Protesters hold banners calling for the release of Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky in Nigeria. Photo credit: REUTERS.

Perhaps the most prominent example of the potentially combustible mix of radical Shia theology and political militancy is the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), whose leader Ibrahim Zakzaky, inspired by the Iranian Revolution, seeks to replace the Nigerian government with an Islamist state, along the lines of the clerical regime in Tehran. While the group claims to be “non-violent,” it has been banned by the authorities in Africa’s most populous nation, and Zakzaky has been detained. Still, its protests, despite harsh repression by the government, have drawn thousands; the BBC has reported that “Khomeini remains the group’s main inspiration: IMN supporters first pledge allegiance to him at their gatherings, and then to their local leader, Sheikh Zakzaky. The IMN views itself as a government, and Sheikh Zakzaky as the only legitimate source of authority in Nigeria.”

Even individual Iranian activists can be effective. In late 2020, police in Niger arrested an operative who had been recruited to the Qods Force Unit 400, which specializes in covert operations, while on a pilgrimage to Iran and had subsequently traveled back to the country several times for weapons training. Under questioning, the suspect admitted that he helped build networks, gather intelligence, and bribe politicians in the Central African Republic, Chad, Eritrea, The Gambia, Sudan, and South Sudan. According to a report in The Economist, “Iran also told him to seek mining licenses in the CAR and Niger to help offset the impact of American sanctions on Iran and to fund covert operations.”

Conclusion

Tremendous strides have been made in recent years toward peace, security, and prosperity in the Greater Middle East, especially through the Abraham Accords, which provides an overt, pro-American alliance in the Middle East and North Africa. Still, the region faces continuing challenges, particularly those posed by Iran and its proxies, in addition to the potential for escalation should the Islamic Republic receive a windfall from the nuclear negotiations in Vienna. Amidst all this, it is easy to discount events in Africa as a sideshow at best. However, with two of the parties to the Abraham Accords, Morocco and Sudan, being African states—and others having signed normalization agreements with Israel—Africa has become a part of this regional rivalry. Thus, Iran’s repeated excursions to the continent require far closer scrutiny.

J. Peter Pham
Ambassador J. Peter Pham was the first US Special Envoy for the Sahel Region, serving from March 2020 to January 2021. Previously he served as US Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region of Africa. @DrJPPham.
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