Iran deals itself into African game
By Chris Zambelis
Much has been said of Africa's growing strategic significance. Stereotypical
images of war, poverty, social and political instability, ethnic and sectarian
strife, drought and disease may, for good reason, continue to color perceptions
of the continent.
Yet Africa, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, is also drawing attention as a
center of economic growth and as a battleground for foreign investors keen on
tapping some of the world's most quickly expanding markets. Amid sluggish
demand in the West and elsewhere due to the global financial meltdown, Africa
is being touted for its unrealized economic potential and business
Africa's abundance of vital natural resources such as oil and
natural gas, as well as its boasting of critical minerals and metals, has
already attracted a queue of suitors offering up billions of investment
dollars. Rising consumerism across the continent has also convinced previously
skeptical investors that Africa's potential extends beyond the traditionally
volatile commodities markets.
The diplomatic, economic, energy and security inroads made by Asian powerhouses
led by China in Africa in recent years is emblematic of Africa's growing
prominence. Once relegated to the status of a backwater in US strategic
thinking, the United States has also thrown its hat into the ring in the battle
for influence in Africa; the establishment of the United States Africa Command
(AFRICOM) in 2007 reflects the growing importance of Africa to US foreign
While the defense of growing US energy interests and security concerns
revolving around counter-terrorism underlie AFRICOM's mission, its creation
also signifies an effort on the part of the United States to check China's
moves on the continent.
Another player in the new African "Great Game" – albeit to a lesser but still
important degree – that has received far less attention is Iran.
Political intrigue and subterfuge
Iran's activities in Africa made headlines in dramatic fashion when Nigerian
customs authorities announced that they had impounded 13 containers of weapons
on October 26, 2010, transported by a private Iranian firm to the port of Apapa
Having refuted initial reports suggesting that the arms shipment, which was
valued at around US$20 million and included mortars, grenades, shells, rockets
and ammunition, was intended for the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger
Delta, a rebel group waging a violent campaign against the Nigerian state, the
recently dismissed Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki acknowledged the
delivery, but emphasized that the "defensive and conventional weapons" were
destined for "another West African country".
The incident caused a diplomatic row between Abuja and Tehran. The Iranian
ambassador to Nigeria was summoned over the incident. A friendly international
football match between the national clubs of Nigeria and Iran scheduled to take
place on November 17, 2010 in Tehran was cancelled. Since the arms shipment may
have breached United Nations sanctions on Iran, Nigeria also threatened to
raise the issue at the United Nations Security Council.
Details surrounding the incident remain mired in confusion and mystery.
Subsequent reports emerged indicating that the arms were headed to the tiny
Republic of the Gambia (separate bills of lading indicating that the shipment
was destined for both Nigeria and Gambia eventually surfaced).
Nigerian officials have also charged two Iranian men they accuse of belonging
to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps - the Islamic Republic's
pre-eminent military and intelligence force - along with three Nigerian
accomplices in connection with the case, with attempting to ship the arms to
At first glance, Gambia would seem an unlikely destination for Iranian arms.
Save for a sliver of coastal territory on the Atlantic Ocean, most of the
country - territorially the smallest on Africa's continental mainland - is
located within the borders of Senegal. For its part, Senegal has been combating
an insurgency in its southern region of Casamance led by the Movement of
Democratic Forces of Casamance (MDFC), a rebel group agitating for
The situation in Casamance (which shares a border with Gambia) has long been a
source of tensions between Gambia and Senegal. Led by president Yahya Jammeh,
Gambia - officially an advocate of a peaceful resolution to the conflict
between Senegal and the MDFC - is accused by Senegal of providing moral and
material support to the Casamance rebellion.
In an apparent attempt to distance itself from the incident, Gambia cut
relations with Iran in November. Senegal, believing that the arms were destined
for the rebels in Casamance via its Gambian rivals, followed suit by recalling
its ambassador to Tehran in December.
Complicating matters further is the fact that up until now Tehran has
cultivated friendly diplomatic and economic ties with both countries; frequent
high-level contacts, growing trade and business links and transfers of Iranian
development aid and technological expertise have characterized Iran's
relationship with Gambia and Senegal - two majority Muslim countries - in
Iran has denied any nefarious motives behind its activities in the region. Iran
has instead implicated hostile intelligence agencies such as those operated by
the United States and Israel in the controversy in what would represent a
possible attempt to undermine its standing in Africa and the international
Another possible explanation offered by some observers is that the arms
shipment may have had nothing at all to do with Africa. The intended recipients
of the delivery, according to this theory, may have been Iran's allies
Hezbollah in Lebanon, with Nigeria and possibly other countries in the region
serving as transshipment hubs for the Middle East.
Whatever the truth of the intended destination of the arms shipment, Iran, a
longstanding and open supporter of Hezbollah, may have an interest in pushing
the Hezbollah angle in order to preserve its relations with Africa. The
countries impacted by the crisis may be livid over their territories being used
potentially as transshipment points for arms deliveries to the Middle East or
elsewhere by Iran. But an Iranian acknowledgment that the arms were intended
for its allies in the Middle East may be easier to explain away from a
Irrespective of the outcome of the tumult surrounding the arms shipment, recent
events in West Africa paint a sensationalized picture of Iran's activities on
Combining elements of diplomatic soft power in the form of calls to jointly
bolster South-South unity and resistance against foreign imperialism with
tangible actions in the trade, business and aid sectors, Iran's venture into
Africa fits a recent pattern of its foreign policy that has witnessed it
nurture relations with countries outside of the greater Middle East.
The elevation of Africa in Iran's strategic thinking was displayed by its
hosting of a two-day Iran-Africa summit in Tehran on September 14-15, 2010. The
event brought heads of state, diplomats, business leaders and cultural
representatives from over 40 African nations to Iran to discuss a range of
During his opening address at the summit, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad
highlighted what he described as the "rich culture, a history full of ups and
downs, and an aspiration for a bright future for the human kind" shared by Iran
and Africa. The Iranian president also called for a world order based on
"respect for nations' rights and dignity" and added that he believes that there
is "no limit" to the potential for relations between Iran and Africa.
Iran has also committed itself to directly engaging Africans on African soil
over the past few years. Ahmadinejad's ambitious travel schedule has taken him
to Senegal, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Mali, Nigeria, Djibouti, Comoros, Kenya, Sudan,
Algeria and Gambia. Iran has also dispatched ministerial-level delegations to
cement ties with other key countries on the continent, including South Africa,
Angola and Ghana.
The Islamic Republic has also tried its hand in multilateral diplomacy on
issues impacting Africa. Iran offered to mediate a solution to the border
dispute between Chad and Sudan, its closest ally in Africa, in February 2008.
An Iranian delegation was dispatched to Brussels in April 2009 to attend the
Somalia donor conference hosted by the European Union (EU) and co-sponsored by
the United Nations and African Union.
Iran engaged the Intergovernmental Authority on Development in August 2010, a
regional development organization made up of East African countries, to discuss
the situation in Somalia.
As it goes to great lengths to soften the revolutionary aspects of its Shi'ite
Islamic identity and politics, Iran does not shy away from showcasing its
Muslim character in its dealings with Muslim countries and communities on the
Iranian religious foundations have established close ties with Shi'ite
minorities in countries such as Senegal and Nigeria and have hosted African
students to study Islam in the Islamic Republic. Iranian Shi'ite groups have
also maintained friendly contacts with their Sunni counterparts, who comprise
the majority of African Muslims, across Africa.
Ultimately, however, it is Iran's success in positioning itself as a symbol of
popular struggle and social justice in the developing world through a discourse
reminiscent of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) - of which Iran is a member -
that has resonated so well across Africa.
Iran's mark on Africa is all the more noteworthy considering that it has
historically enjoyed a marginal presence in the region.
Incidentally, Iran has also carved a niche for itself as the leader of the
so-called "resistance axis" in the Middle East, a group that includes Syria,
Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine and, at times, Turkey and Qatar,
against the American-led regional order comprised of Israel and pro-US Arab
autocracies such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
Trade and other forms of economic cooperation between Iran and Africa are also
heating up. In 2007, for example, Iran's largest automobile manufacturer Khodro
inaugurated a production plant in Senegal. In that same year, Khodro agreed to
a $2 billion deal to furnish Gambia with buses and heavy commercial vehicles.
In 2008, Iran committed to share nuclear technology with Nigeria to help
support its efforts to expand its capacity to generate electricity. In 2010,
Iran inked a number of agreements with the Central African Republic (CAR) and
Tanzania that outline its commitment to support agriculture and critical
infrastructure projects in both countries.
During his April 2010 visit to Zimbabwe, Ahmadinejad visited an Iranian textile
factory in Harare and issued the opening remarks to kick off Zimbabwe's annual
international trade fair with calls to boost business ties between Iran and
Zimbabwe. Iran and Kenya also broached the possibility of establishing a
free-trade agreement following talks in October 2010.
Diplomatic proxy wars
Overall, the impetus for Iran's drive into Africa is grounded in pragmatism and
its current geopolitical predicament; Iran's objective is to shore up its
diplomatic position in the midst of threats ranging from ongoing isolation to
outright invasion by the United States and Israel over its nuclear program.
Iran's partners in Africa, for instance, including many key US allies, tend to
vocally support its right to develop its nuclear program. Iran also wants to
circumvent the intricate web of economic sanctions imposed on it by the United
States and, increasingly, the international community, by exploiting new
business in Africa.
As it is labeled a threat to global peace and stability, it is Iran that feels
under siege; from a geographic perspective, the US-led invasions and
occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan combined with the existing constellation of
American military bases and US naval assets in the Gulf have hemmed Iran in.
Despite US efforts to widen its footprint in Africa, the wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan and other foreign policy priorities are weighing heavily in
Washington. The domestic economic situation is also preoccupying the White
House with matters closer to home. The confluence of these circumstances has
provided Iran with an opening to keep pace with US gains in Africa.
Iran is also determined to counter the diplomatic and economic activities of
its rival Israel across the continent. Israel has a history of strong
diplomatic, economic and security relations with Africa, especially sub-Saharan
Africa. The Iran-Israel rivalry played itself out in Mauritania when Iran
praised Mauritania's decision to sever relations with Israel in March 2010.
Mauritania - one of only three Arab states to have established formal
diplomatic relations with Israel - first cut ties with Israel after its
invasion of Gaza. Iran also sees an opportunity to counter Egypt, another rival
with a long tradition of relations with Africa. Once a figurehead of the NAM
and a diplomatic powerhouse in Africa, the Middle East and beyond, today's
Egypt is a shell of its former self.
What remains of Egypt's diminished international standing, much to the regret
of most Egyptians, rests on its staunchly pro-US orientation. Egypt's failure
to secure its interests in the ongoing dispute over the distribution of Nile
River waters and the eventual secession of southern Sudan, among other things,
has provided Iran with an opening to project its power in Egypt's backyard.
As Africa's stock rises, Iran is poised to continue to spread its influence
across the continent. Despite its impressive gains to date, Iran cannot match
the inroads made by other major players angling for influence in Africa, namely
the United States and China. Iran can nevertheless strengthen its hand in its
confrontation with its foes by interjecting itself into African affairs.
Tehran's new interest in Africa, however, is not fleeting. It follows that Iran
has much to gain by engaging Africa down the road.
Chris Zambelis is an author and researcher with
Helios Global, Inc, a risk management group based in the Washington, DC
area. He specializes in Middle East politics. The views expressed here are the
author's alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of Helios Global, Inc.