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Iran and the Horn of Africa: The Stakes and Hurdles of Building a Strategic Foothold

Over the past decade, the Horn of Africa has increasingly become a theater of competition between regional and international actors competing to access its resources and influence its geopolitical destiny. The Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) has been no exception. From Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013) to Hassan Rouhani (2013-2021) and Ebrahim Raisi (2021-present), a consensus has gradually taken shape among the Iranian political leadership about the importance of establishing a strategic presence in Eastern Africa. The urgency to intensify diplomatic engagement with the Horn of Africa has stemmed from a combination of external and domestic considerations, including the need to evade international sanctions crippling the Iranian economy, the imperative of expanding Iran’s foreign alliances, and the ambition to build strategic depth in one of the most militarily important areas in the world.

While post-revolutionary Iran has repeatedly sought to include the Horn of Africa as a top foreign policy priority, its attempts to secure a stronger presence in the region have delivered mixed results. On the one hand, decades-long foreign policy activism in the Horn of Africa has allowed Tehran to establish connections with several local actors and familiarize itself with the region’s unique dynamics. On the other hand, however, Iran has often seen its investments in building stronger diplomatic credentials in the region crumbling due to rapidly changing political developments suddenly altering the regional order, placing the continuity of its Horn of Africa policy into question. Although the Raisi administration has visibly sought to revitalize Iran’s outreach to the African continent since 2021, the structural constraints of the Iranian foreign policy and unpredictable contingencies of the international system continue to hinder Tehran’s capacity to secure a strategic foothold in the Horn of Africa.

The Horn of Africa and Iran’s “Resistance Policy”

Since its onset, major existential threats have challenged the Islamic Republic’s survival. The regime’s fear of being constantly under attack by domestic and external forces has deeply affected the strategic thinking and threat perception of its leadership, both in the political and military spheres. While the so-called “moderate” and “hardliner” camps have sought to provide different answers to the survival dilemma—the former by seeking to strike a coexistence formula with the current global order, the latter by challenging it in a head-on confrontation—the theme of “resistance” against a Western-dominated power system pervades Iranian politics.

To keep threats against the Islamic Republic at a distance, Iran has designed a military doctrine and a foreign policy approach aiming to neutralize potential adversaries before they reach its shores. To this purpose, political and military leaders in Tehran have carefully sought to enhance the country’s strategic depth in regions of critical interest. This strategy has entailed both the strengthening of the country’s military capability and the cultivation of an extensive network of ties with a broad range of like-minded foreign partners, including state and non-state actors.

Iran’s outreach to the Horn of Africa follows a similar dynamic. The Islamic Republic has sought to build influence in the region because it perceived the move as beneficial to the promotion of its survival. Therefore, building relations with local actors and seeking to project power in the region amount to a calculated decision, geared toward growing Tehran’s leverage abroad and helping it to project power in an area of mounting value to its traditional rivals—the United States, the Arab Gulf monarchies, Turkey, and Israel.

Why the Horn Matters

While Iran’s outreach to the Horn of Africa fits with the paradigm of its “resistance policy,” Tehran has sought to pursue two main goals by scaling up its engagement in the region. First, it has attempted to secure navigation routes for its commercial ships and oil tankers sailing through the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Second, it has used its connections in the Horn of Africa to support its local partners, primarily the Houthi insurgent group in Yemen but also Hamas in Gaza.

As Iran extracts a great deal of its revenues from the export of fossil fuels and oil-based products, free and secured access to the global energy supply lines has always been high on the agenda of its strategic priorities. A marked spike in attacks by Somali pirates in the late 2000s threatened this critical lifeline. Against the backdrop of the intensification of at-sea armed robbery episodes, Iran stepped up its naval presence in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. When dispatched to the region, Iranian Navy warships used the Eritrean port town of Assab—strategically located in close proximity to the Red Sea southern gateway—as a port of call. After reaching a peak in the early 2010s, at-sea harassment episodes have been brought down to more manageable proportions, thanks in large part to the role of anti-piracy multinational partnerships. However, although piracy incidents are less frequent today, they still loom over the region; in 2021, pirates targeted Iranian oil tankers twice while sailing in the Gulf of Aden, and in mid-August and early September 2022, two Iranian merchant vessels reported an unsafe approach by several unidentified small craft with visibly armed crews near the Bab El Mandeb. On both occasions, an Iranian Navy naval flotilla led by the Moudge-class frigate Jamaran (76) foiled the seizure attempts. Although Tehran continues to frame its naval presence in the region within the anti-piracy quest, some observers in the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Israel have read it as a pretext for the Islamic Republic to keep a tactical presence close to their military, energy, and commercial infrastructures in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden water basin.

While it is still a matter of heated debate whether the Houthis represent a full-fledged Iranian proxy or an independent insurgent group with an agenda only partially aligned with Tehran’s geopolitical ambitions, there are few doubts left about the pivotal role played by the Islamic Republic in backing their war effort in the Yemeni Civil War over the past years. Any direct or indirect attempt to supply, sell, or transfer weapons to Yemen represents a violation of the U.N. Security Council Resolution 2216, and Iran has repeatedly rejected all accusations that it secretly organizes the trafficking networks that operate in the maritime space enclosed between the Strait of Hormuz and Bab El Mandeb. However, counter-smuggling operations conducted by the navies of littoral and non-littoral countries in the Arabian Sea have identified a regular pattern pointing to Iran’s involvement in the smuggling of lethal aid to the Houthi insurgents. Most of the seized dhows carrying smuggled weapons for the Houthis are stateless fishing ships with Yemeni crewmembers, are intercepted while sailing on a Yemen-Iran maritime route historically used to smuggle illicit cargo, and are equipped with GPS devices with the geo-coordinates of Iranian, Somali, and Yemeni ports known to be hotspots of maritime trafficking networks.

Up In Smoke

Given the critical role of ideological and religious factors in informing Iran’s foreign policy, it is not surprising that the Islamic Republic has resorted to a repertoire of rhetoric combining anti-imperialist and revolutionary Shiite political Islam claims to frame its Horn of Africa outreach policy. However, Tehran has struggled to make ideological inroads in the region because the coastal states are overwhelmingly Sunni. Since Iran’s traditional playbook was of little help—if not detrimental—to the promotion of its ambitions, the Islamic Republic repurposed its regional strategy toward an approach that partially downplayed ideological-religious instances and instead favored pragmatic and tactical considerations.

Diplomatically isolated and weighed down by heavy sanctions, Iran has attempted to leverage its weaknesses to win the sympathy of the Horn of Africa’s long-lasting outcasts and rally them around a loosely-defined core of mutual interests. Sudan and Eritrea, long the subjects of extensive Western sanctions, emerged as the best candidates. Indeed, at the time of Iran’s first contact, all three countries enjoyed a checkered past with the U.S and shared a thirst for partners to shoulder the burden of crippling sanctions and diplomatic isolation. As a result, Tehran’s relationships with Khartoum and Asmara rapidly flourished, with security and defense sectors driving the cooperation.

However, these strategic partnerships have not resisted the test of time. As a result of Iran’s faltering attention to the Horn of Africa during the Rouhani-led presidencies and an intensification of diplomatic activism in the region by Iranian rivals, Tehran’s relationship with Khartoum and Asmara drifted back into a downward spiral. Cracks in the Iran-Sudan “defensive alliance”—as Jeffrey A. Lefebvre, an associate professor of Political Science at the University of Connecticut, dubbed it—started to open in 2014, when Khartoum expelled Iran’s diplomats and shut down its cultural centers after government officials expressed concerns that they were being used to spread radical Shiite ideology. Ultimately, Iran-Sudan ties ran aground in the wake of the 2016 storming of the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Even the Iran-Eritrea honeymoon proved short-lived. In 2015, Asmara severed its ties with Tehran and joined the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthi insurgents.

Since the radical U-turn in Khartoum’s and Asmara’s relationships with Tehran, the Red Sea’s balance of power has tilted in favor of the anti-Iranian camp. In January 2020, Iran’s two erstwhile allies contributed to the launch of the Red Sea Council, a Saudi-led multilateral initiative regrouping all the Red Sea’s littoral countries (except for Israel) geared to facilitate security cooperation. A year later, in January 2021, Sudan paved the way for the full normalization of diplomatic ties with Israel by joining the Abraham Accords. While a fully-fledged peace agreement has yet to be inked, the recent visit paid by the Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen to Sudan’s sovereign council head General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, highlights a turning point in Israel-Sudan relationship might be close.

In short, Iran is no stranger to the Horn of Africa power game, but Tehran’s efforts to expand its club of friends in the region have been unable to deliver meaningful, durable results. Even its partnerships with Sudan and Eritrea, which seemed to promise high rewards, proved to be a temporary marriage of convenience rather than a solid strategic alignment.

What the Future Holds

While Iran’s club of friends in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden water basin has narrowed down consistently during the past decade, the Horn of Africa is a fast-unfolding political landscape where today’s foes could still turn into tomorrow’s partners. In the meantime, Tehran will seek to take advantage of the region’s underlying frictions to find some entry points and retain some influence over its geopolitical developments. Iran’s activities in the Horn of Africa will focus on preventing the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden from turning into an “anti-Iranian lake.”

Iran’s capacity to play a spoiler role in the Horn of Africa is bound to face new stress tests during the Raisi-led administration. Limited financial clout, intensifying domestic protests, and the revamping of tensions along the Iranian borders from the Caucasus to Afghanistan might induce Tehran to temporarily divert energies and resources from its Horn of Africa agenda to more compelling concerns. However, as long as Iran continues to consider a foothold in the region as pivotal to its survival and resistance, the Horn of Africa is unlikely to completely fall off Tehran’s radar screen.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Leonardo Jacopo Maria Mazzucco is a researcher who focuses on the security affairs of the Gulf region. He is also an analyst at Gulf State Analytics (GSA), a Washington-based geopolitical risk consultancy. He tweets at: @mazz_Leonardo.

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