Iran’s economic and ideological ties to Africa appear to portend greater influence there, but its dual role as the benefactor of Shia extremist groups across the continent undermine its own ambitions.
During his visit to Guinea-Bissau in August 2021, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi pledged to pursue the “comprehensive development of relations with African countries” and framed Iran as a “real partner” for Africa. One year later, Rouhollah Latif, the deputy head of the Iran-Africa Merchants Club, announced that trade between Iran and Africa had increased by 39%. This year, Iran’s primary import partners in Africa were Tanzania, Kenya, and South Africa, while its principal export partners were South Africa, Mozambique, and Sudan. Although Iran’s $1.056 billion trade with Africa during the first eight months of 2022 remains dwarfed by the commercial relationships of other powers, the growth of Iranian business connections on the continent reflects Raisi’s commitment to reversing his predecessor Hassan Rouhani’s disinterest in Africa.
Despite Iran’s commitment to a greater presence in Africa, Tehran’s strategy on the continent is riddled with contradictions. Over the past two decades, Iran has cultivated new economic partnerships and capitalized on widespread anti-Western sentiment to garner influence throughout Africa. This calculated and conciliatory approach to engagement with Africa, however, has been paired with destabilizing tactics, such as attempting to cultivate a sectarian political identity among Shia Muslim Africans and allegedly arming non-state actors—moves which have only served to tarnish Iran’s image. Iran’s dual role as both an aspiring regional partner and a force of chaos continues to restrict the depth of its partnerships in Africa and provides openings for its Gulf rivals to exploit.
What Iran Does Right
Since 2006, when controversial former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was feted at the African Union’s annual summit in Accra, Ghana, Iran has viewed commercial ties with Africa as a critical component of its “South-South” strategy. Until the U.S. pressured major importers of Iranian oil, such as South Africa, to suspend their purchases in 2012, Iran marketed its oil to African countries to compensate for its isolation from Western markets. Iran has also sought to expand its ties in Africa through loan provisions, hospital construction, and small business investments. After more than a decade, these efforts have achieved some success; due to the establishment of business centers in major markets, such as South Africa and Kenya, Iran has modestly expanded its exports of manufactured goods like automobiles to African countries.
The strategy of economic outreach toward Africa initially fell out of favor under Rouhani, as Iran pursued sanctions relief and courted Western partners, but it has experienced a resurgence under Raisi. In June 2022, the head of Iran’s Trade Promotion Organization (TPO) Alireza Peyman-Pak set a $5 billion trade target with African countries by 2025. Peyman-Pak intends to reach this lofty target through the formalization of a barter trade mechanism crafted to legally evade Western sanctions, as well as a strategy that leverages Iran’s technical expertise to strengthen maritime transportation infrastructure in Africa. Iran’s commercial partnership with South Africa is a flagship success of its strategy; non-oil trade volumes between the two countries increased by 500% from March 2021 to March 2022, and they are poised to further strengthen their ties through a joint economic committee meeting.
Iran has buttressed its soft power appeal to African states by employing anti-Western and anti-Israeli rhetoric. Iran’s condemnations of Western neocolonialism and solidarity with authoritarian regimes in Africa mirrors Russia’s time-tested soft power strategy. During his February 22 meeting with Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang—himself the subject of extensive Western sanctions—Raisi accused Western countries of plundering Africa’s wealth, claiming that they had “maintained their colonial spirit and have only changed their colonial methods.” Iran’s framing of Western sanctions against Zimbabwe as “economic terrorism” helped strengthen bilateral ties between Tehran and Harare, and Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian responded to France’s drawdown from Mali by devising “special plans” to strengthen economic ties with the country’s ruling miliary junta under Colonel Assimi Goita. Similarly, Iran’s outspoken condemnations of Israeli “apartheid against the Palestinian people” have facilitated closer ties with South Africa, whose ANC-dominated government largely empathizes with the Palestinian cause given its own history with politically-enforced discrimination.
In addition to creating new commercial openings through African outreach, Iranian policymakers have hoped to gain support for Tehran’s positions at the United Nations—ideally serving as a counterweight to Saudi Arabia, which has pursued similar diplomatic overtures in recent years. In 2007, South Africa urged the UN Security Council to drop its arms embargo on Iran and refrain from multilateral sanctions on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Iran’s assiduous pursuit of close relations with Niger was followed by Niger’s rejection of the legitimacy of U.S. snapback sanctions against Iran when it chaired the UNSC in September 2020.
However, this strategy has seen diminishing returns, largely due to Tehran’s lack of financial resources in comparison to its adversaries. When Saudi Arabia pushed Sudan, Somalia, and Djibouti to suspend diplomatic relations with Iran after the execution of Saudi Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr in January 2016, Tehran has regarded Riyadh’s diplomatic overtures in Africa with trepidation. Iran cannot compete with Saudi Arabia’s financial power, such as its $15 billion economic agreement with South Africa in October 2022. Consequently, it has attempted to encourage ideological solidarity to counter Saudi patronage—a tool with dangerous consequences for its future relationships on the continent.
What Iran Does Wrong
Following the U.S. killing of IRGC Quds Forces commander Qassem Soleimani in January 2020, Iran’s plans to perpetrate its own political violence in Africa have gained international attention and garnered significant criticism from African governments. In the aftermath of the Soleimani killing, Iran reportedly concocted a plan to kill U.S. Ambassador to South Africa Lana Marks. Iranian intelligence agents also reportedly attempted to attack the UAE’s Embassy in Ethiopia as part of a broader campaign against Emirati, Israeli, and U.S. diplomatic outposts in Africa. On November 7, local authorities in Senegal, Ghana, and Tanzania arrested five suspected agents of the Quds Force for allegedly plotting to carry out attacks against Israeli tourists and businesspeople.
Beyond these alleged terrorist plots, Iran’s alignments with Shiite extremist networks across Africa have fueled criticism of the Islamic Republic. Iran’s support for Shiite cleric Ibrahim Zakzaky, who leads the Islamic Movement in Nigeria and is inspired by the ideology of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, has received negative attention from the Nigerian government, although Zakzaky does not support Boko Haram-style terrorist tactics to create an Islamic state in Nigeria. Iran has also been tarred by its association with its Hezbollah proxy militia in Lebanon, which remains heavily involved in West African smuggling networks. Cote d’Ivoire has emerged as a linchpin of money laundering and narcotics trafficking in West Africa, and its 80,000-strong Lebanese diaspora community has served as a gateway for Hezbollah involvement. Hezbollah’s arms and narcotics trafficking extend to other West African countries, such as Guinea, Togo, Guinea-Bissau, and Sierra Leone, and are part of a global operation that nets the militant group $1 billion each year.
Iran’s arms shipments to non-state actors have also been viewed with suspicion by many across Africa. Iran’s establishment of a proxy network in Somalia, which has allegedly funneled arms to Yemen’s Houthi rebels and to other clients throughout East Africa, is the most noteworthy example of Tehran’s policy of weapons proliferation. The U.S. Treasury Department alleges that the head of al-Shabaab’s intelligence wing, Mohamed Ahmed Qahiye, held clandestine meetings with Iranian nationals in early 2020 that resulted in the transfer of funds to Somalia’s branch of the Islamic State (ISIS) terror group. Iran has also reportedly funneled kamikaze drones to the Polisario Front for its fight against Morocco in the disputed Western Sahara territory, straining relations between Tehran and Rabat. In early 2022, Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita condemned Tehran’s plans to infiltrate Africa and expand the Islamic Revolution ideology in the continent.
Although Iran’s commercial and diplomatic presence in Africa has advanced under Raisi’s leadership, its destabilizing conduct complicates and frequently contradicts Tehran’s regional ambitions. As the prospects of a swift restoration of the JCPOA recede and Iran faces additional Western sanctions over its military assistance to Russia, Raisi is likely to elevate Africa as a theater of Iranian power projection in 2023—but might experience diminishing returns unless his government agrees to scale back its ideological aims and its ties to criminal activity and destabilizing military conflicts.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.