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Iran-Africa Relations: Reflecting on the Tensions inside Tehran’s Foreign Relations – Professor Hussein Solomon

January 31, 2015

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Iran-Africa Relations: Reflecting on the Tensions inside Tehran’s Foreign Relations

By Hussein Solomon

RIMA Occasional Papers, Volume 3 (2015), Number 1 (February 2015)

Diplomatically isolated and under increasing economic sanctions with regards to its nuclear programme, the Islamic Republic of Iran has turned its attention to Africa to secure strategic allies and spread its influence. Tehran believes the African continent to be easy pickings given its relative neglect by Western powers. Pre-occupied with the economic challenges in the Eurozone or the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, Africa, Tehran’s policy-makers believe, have fallen off the radar screens of the major Western powers. Under former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Africa has come to occupy the attention of key policy-makers in Iran. During his tenure as president of the Islamic Republic, Ahmadinejad visited the African continent annually[i]. According to Michael Rubin[ii], Iran’s Africa strategy entails, “…courting African countries voting in important international bodies, prioritizing outreach to African countries that mine uranium, and cementing partnerships that could give Iran access to strategic naval bases”.

Tehran’s diplomatic thrust into Africa started paying dividends very early on with Iranian trade growing exponentially with the African continent[iii]. Building on its anti-apartheid stance, Iran’s charm offensive saw trade relations with South Africa rapidly increase. By 2007, Iran’s exports to South Africa reached almost US $21 billion. Much of this constituted oil purchases on the part of Pretoria[iv]. South Africa and Iran also agreed to engage in a number of joint development projects. South Africa’s energy giant, Sasol, for instance is involved in a US $900 million polymer joint venture with its Iranian counterpart[v]. South Africa’s Mobile Telephone Network or MTN secured a major foothold in Iran telecommunications market – supplying cellphone coverage to 40 percent of Iranians[vi]. For Iran, this deal with MTN had other benefits. The US Department of the Treasury has accused MTN of assisting Iran to skirt sanctions on imports of US technology[vii].

Beyond the immediate economic advantages, Iran also received other advantages with its bilateral relations with South Africa. Since July 2008, Pretoria has stressed Iran’s right to `peaceful’ nuclear technology and called for the lifting of the arms embargo and financial sanctions against Tehran[viii]. South Africa’s foreign minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane went further – noting how Tehran respects human rights[ix].

A similar Iranian charm offensive focused on Algeria – a fellow Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) member who also happens to possess the sixth largest natural gas reserves in the world[x]. Once again the focus was on closer economic ties which witnessed bilateral economic trade to double from 2007 to 2008. As in the case of South Africa there were also joint development projects such as a US $300 million cement factory to be built in Algeria. In their interaction with Algiers, the Iranians also stressed common Islamic values. Tehran also offered to assist Algeria with its civilian nuclear programme. Predictably, in November 2008, Algerian diplomats echoed Pretoria’s position by pledging support for Iran’s right to “peaceful nuclear technology”[xi].

Somalia with its strategic location (one of Tehran’s primary shipping lanes pass through the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the Somali coast) as well as its uranium deposits has also been targeted for the Iranian charm offensive. In addition to securing political and economic ties with the country, Tehran also sought to mediate between the warring Somali factions and sought common ground with Somalis given their common Islamic value system[xii].

Iran has also sought to foster closer relations with several West African countries. In each case the reason was fundamentally strategic. Tehran’s new found love for Guinea Conakry occurred at the same time as the discovery of commercially viable uranium deposits in 2007 in this tiny West African state. Similarly, Iran’s diplomatic and economic efforts to draw closer to Senegal were motivated by this country’s relative stability and its influence in its region[xiii]. Given Africa’s most populous country’s role in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union (AU) as well as within the UN, Nigeria was targeted early by Iran’s diplomats with offers to build Iranian automobiles in Nigeria, lending Iranian engineering expertise to Abuja as well as joint offshore gas initiatives[xiv].

There does however seem to be tensions between Iran acting in its own national self-interest in the realist sense and Iran acting to further the cause of its revolutionary Shi’a Islamist ideology. This tension is also seen organizationally in that Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Intelligence and the Al Quds Force all seem to be conducting foreign policy independently of each other. It stands to reason that the promotion of a revolutionary Islamist ideology is not necessarily compatible with Iran’s national interest. Whilst Iran, the realist actor may want to get close to Algiers, Iran, the Islamist revolutionary actor sabotaged this by supporting Islamist groups in Algeria. Whilst both countries decided to move beyond this embarrassing episode it is clear that Algeria continues to distrust the Islamic Republic. Thus, instead of accepting Iran’s offer for civilian nuclear agreement, Algiers instead chose to sign agreements with Moscow and the United States for assistance with its civilian nuclear programme[xv].

Similarly, in Somalia despite Tehran’s foreign policy mandarins seeking closer ties with the Mogadishu government, the Somali government accused Iran of attempting to supply Islamist insurgents with machine guns, surface-to-air missiles, rocket launchers and landmines in exchange for uranium deposits. A UN panel of experts subsequently confirmed that Iran had supplied Somalia’s militants with such military aid[xvi].  In addition, Iran’s warm relations with Eritrea who supports Somalia’s Al Shabaab militants has further antagonized the Somali authorities[xvii]. Under the circumstances, it should come as no surprise that subsequent governments in Mogadishu viewed Tehran with suspicion.

In similar vein, Iran’s warming bilateral relations with Senegal turned frosty when Dakar accused Iran of arming Casamance separatists[xviii]. Iran’s own goals were repeated in Nigeria in October 2010 when authorities seized the largest shipment of Iranian weapons in a container in the port city of Lagos. Three years later, in June 2013, a Hezbollah cell was discovered in the northern city of Kano[xix]. Needless to say Iran’s charm offensive in Nigeria was firmly rebuffed. Commenting on Iran shooting itself in the foot in this manner, Michael Rubin[xx] succinctly surmises, “The Iranian ministry of intelligence, Quds Force, and the foreign ministry have, on occasion, run foreign operations at odds with each other and broader Iranian policy”.

Moreover, whilst Iran may think that it its “soft power” is being enhanced by laying stress on its Islamic identity in its relations with Algeria and Somalia; these however view Iran through sectarian lenses – as a Shi’a not Islamic country. Moreover, in recent years Muslim countries like Turkey have increasingly emerged on the African continent – serving to displace Iranian influence, for e.g. in Somalia. Indeed, Ankara’s developmental assistance to Africa has surpassed US $100 million this past decade. In addition, the number of Turkish embassies across the continent has almost tripled from 12 in 2009 to 34[xxi]. It is unlikely given the biting economic sanctions imposed upon Tehran as well as the falling price of oil that Iran can compete with Turkey on the continent.

Even at the level of economics, there have been setbacks. Whilst South Africa’s MTN has drawn financial benefits from its foray into the Iranian telecommunications market, it has not been without controversy with allegations that Iran’s security services were spying on its citizens through the MTN operations[xxii]. Needless to say – the reputational damage suffered by the company was immense.

The effectiveness of Iran’s strategic thrust into Africa must be questioned on other grounds too. Consider its warm relations with South Africa – certainly the powerhouse of the continent. Despite its relative influence in Africa, Pretoria was forced to cave in to American and European Union pressure on Iranian oil purchases and has since cut off its oil trade with Tehran[xxiii]. The lesson here is quite clear: fostering relations with weak African states heavily reliant on their economic relations with the West is not a viable strategy for the Islamic Republic. Equally self-evident Iran’s foreign policy mandarins cannot portray Tehran as both a status quo power and a revolutionary power seeking to overthrow that status quo. This contradiction between realism where Iran acts as a rational actor seeking to secure its national interest and Islamist revolutionism seeking to overthrow the status quo lies at the heart of Iran’s failed African adventure.

[i] Michael Rubin, “Africa: Iran’s final frontier?,” American Enterprise Institute, 17 April 2013. Internet: http://www.aei.org/publication/africa-irans-final-frontier. Date accessed: 28 January 2015.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Joseph Hammond, “Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s African Safari,” The Diplomat, 18 June 2013.

[iv] “South Africa – Iran Foreign Relations,” Iran Tracker. 22 September 2009. Internet: http://www.irantracker.org. Date accessed: 29 January 2015.

[v] “Iran-South Africa relations,” Wikipedia. Date accessed: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iran%E2%80%93South_Africa_relations. Date accessed: 28 January 2015.

[vi] “South Africa-Iran Foreign Relations,” op. cit.

[vii] Rubin, op.cit.

[viii] “South Africa-Iran Foreign Relations, op. cit.

[ix] Herb Keinon, “South African minister defends Iran, says there will be no ore SA-Israel ministerial visits,” The Jerusalem Post, 11 February 2013.

[x] “Algeria-Iran Foreign Relations,” Iran Tracker. 9 May 2010. Internet: http://www.irantracker.org. Date accessed: 26 January 2015.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] “Somalia-Iran Foreign Relations,” Iran Tracker. 9 May 2010. Internet: http://www.irantracker.org. Date accessed: 26 January 2015.

[xiii] “Desperate for Allies and Secret Assets, Iran Penetrates Africa,” Internet: thetower.org/article/desperate-for-allies-and-secret-assets-iran-penetrates-africa/ Date accessed: 26 January 2015.

[xiv] Hammond, op. cit.

[xv] “Somalia-Iran Foreign Relations,” op. cit.

[xvi] Ibid; Hammond, op.cit.

[xvii] Hammond, op. cit.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] “Desperate for Allies and Secret Assets,” op. cit.

[xx] Rubin, op. cit.

[xxi] Hammond, op. cit.

[xxii] “South Africa – Iran Foreign Relations,” op.cit., Hammond, op. cit.

[xxiii] “Desperate for Allies and Secret Assets,” op. cit.

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