♦ Iranian incursion in sub-Saharan Africa
The African or Dark Continent, as some prefer to call it, is one of the largest conflicts of interest zones between major countries throughout history because of its strategic location and view of some of the most important trade routes on earth. In addition to that, it is considered the richest continent of natural resources, which has attracted the attention of colonizing countries including Iran, which has adopted a policy of expansion, and exporting its ideology and the Jurist leadership after the success of the revolution in 1979.
Exporting the revolution to other countries and minorities is stated in the Iranian constitution in more than one article. This has become, as it claims a moral duty to save people from tyranny and injustice. Therefore, Iran has adopted different strategies and approaches in dealing with these peoples in a way that aligns with their social, religious, economic and political structures to facilitate dominating and turning them into a launch base for its ambitions.
Iran has used the Islamic religion and common history as a strategy to facilitate the penetration into the Middle East countries. This is evident in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon and other sectarian groups that alleged loyalty to the Jurist Leadership in Iran.
The Iranian role in sub-Saharan countries is not much different from that in Arab countries, taking into consideration the different social structures and demographics of Sub-Sahara from those in the Middle East countries, which share a religion, language, and Islamic culture. For example, religions and cultures in the Horn of Africa are different from those in West and East African territories. Muslims outnumber other religions in these countries; meanwhile, they are a minority in South African countries that are dominated by other religions such as Christianity.
Iran has already maintained its presence in Africa since the seventies of last century as a launch point to other countries. Today, Iran has gone too far in expansion in Africa on the political, economic and social levels, which is estimated as the longest stage in its roadmap to control the African continent, and minimize the role of other players in the African affairs. At this stage, Iran has adopted several Practical approaches to ensure its expansion in Africa and cope up with its cultural diversities.
Nevertheless, Iran has adopted a common principle to justify rapprochement with these countries, which is to stand together to defeat Western hegemony. In addition to that, it presents itself as a liberator and protector of people that suffer from western domination. This is a frequent statement by Iranian officials during their visits to Africa, starting from Rafsanjani’s visit in 1991 to Sudan up to Rouhani’s era. In this research paper we will discuss the Iranian objectives of incursion in Africa, and the strategies it adopted in each African country.
» West African countries
Iran’s policy in West African countries aligns with that in the Arab region. It is concentrated on religious dimensions that justify its interference in the internal affairs of these countries since Muslims constitute the majority in most of them. This has paved the way for Iran to have a foothold in Nigeria and Senegal. This phase started in the seventies and eighties, particularly with the migration of large numbers of Lebanese Shiites during the civil war.
In a study by Dr. M.C, from the religious studies department at Cape Coast University in Ghana about Muslim community in Ghana, he stated that the Shiites began to enter this country after the Iranian revolution in several ways. The most notable was helping Sunni Muslims “only” through cultural centers, especially in the north, and had never invited people to embrace the Shiite Doctrine. They were only concentrated on services and offered people annual tickets to do Umrah and refurbish their homes. In addition, they didn’t build mosques or Hosseinians in the beginning but began to do so gradually through restoring Sunni mosques, and publishing books that promote the revolution until has widely been accepted and well received among Sunni youths.
With the migration of Lebanese refugees in the early eighties, Shiite Dawa grew. Shiite organizations such as Al-Khawthar began building mosques and organizing Shiite religious ceremonies such as the celebration of Jerusalem Day and the Day of Ashura. .
Today, Statistics estimate that there are no less than 1.18 million Shiites in Ghana.
During the era of former Ghanaian President, Iran had more freedom and flexibility in the northern part of the country under the pretext of helping Muslims and Lebanese immigrants. The embrace of Shiism increased among Sunni youth since then. Iran began to build medical clinics and schools that promote the revolution; the Islamic University in Ghana was the most prominent achievement.
The situation is not different from that in Nigeria, which hosts a big Shiite community although Shiites had never existed in Nigeria before the eighties of last century. In fact, there is no accurate statistics for Shiites in Nigeria, but an estimation of no less than 3.5 million, while other sources estimate the number as at least 10 million Shiites.
Shiism campaigns in Nigeria are led by Ibrahim Zakzaki who is heading the so-called Islamic movement of Nigeria. Iran has attracted him after seeing his fascination of the revolution and its slogans. He gathered his followers and involved them in politics, in an attempt to clone the Lebanese Hezbollah, and control the political process in Nigeria. He also used the north as a foothold for him and his militias, especially in Sokoto and Cotto states, where he worked hard to eliminate Sunni influence in these states. Zakzaki’s main action was in 2007, during the violent clashes between Sunnis and Shiites that broke out in these areas following the assassination of the Sunni Sheikh Amr Danmashiya who was known for his hostility for Shiism campaigns. What helped Zakzaki in flexing his muscles, according to the Nigerian prosecutor, is the support he receives from Azim Agha Jani, one of al-Quds Corps commanders, as well as Ali Akbar Tabatabai, commander of al-Quds Corps operations in Africa that had recently fled to Venezuela.
In 2010, Nigerian authorities seized a shipment of weapons coming from the port of Bandar Abbas in 13 containers registered as constructional materials . Hence, the war on Zakzaki and his militia began. The latest was in 2015 when the Nigerian authorities accused Zakzaki of plotting to assassinate the Nigerian army commander; consequently, the Nigerian forces broke into his headquarter and arrested him.
On the Economic and trade level, which is considered one of the most important pillars of the Iranian expansion in the African continent, it has begun with the arrival of Hashemi Rafsanjani to power between 1989-1997, when he gave an unprecedented attention to building bridges of economic cooperation in his foreign policy with African countries, and attracting foreign investments.
This policy continued and reached its peak during the reign of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, when the Iranian Khodro cars factory was established in Senegal in 2007, which is the first plant of its kind in Senegal, allowing Iran to export its products from this factory to other African countries and to Turkey for cheap prices. After that, this factory signed an agreement in 2007 to export diesel cars and heavy equipment to Guinea for about two billion dollars, followed by a meeting between the two countries to document cooperation in energy, agriculture, and private sector activities in 2008.
Economic growth between Iran and West African States has created an acceptance for Iran among these communities. This resulted in the concentration on opening new markets for the Iranian private sector, which were influenced by sanctions before the nuclear deal. More importantly, Iran has maintained its relations with Uranium- producing countries in West Africa, especially when uranium was discovered in Guinea that made Iran increase its trade with this country 140%.
» Horn of Africa Countries
In east Africa, or what is known as the Horn of Africa, Iran does not understand that we can’t change history or write it in a way that serves our interests and persuade generations to come to impose its historical presence in the target countries. In order to succeed, Iran has to continue its efforts to convince these generations that they, Persians, were the most important part in their history. It is not necessarily for Iran to do this role directly as a government, but through historians in the Iranian universities and some well-known intellectuals in these countries such as Prof. Abdel Sheriff in the University of Dar al-Salam in Tanzania, and many others in these targeted countries.
Horn of Africa countries, particularly the African coast that extends along the coast of Somalia to the coast of Zanzibar, Tanzania has embraced Islam through the Arab traders’ trips throughout history. Nevertheless, Iran claims that Shirazians coming from Iran introduced Islam to these territories, and has produced numerous documentary movies to convince the world and the Muslims as well that Islam has entered as Persian by the Shirazian Imam Ali bin al-Hassan.
There are no documented statistics about an exact number of Shiite populations in Tanzania or on the African east coast in general. But, according to a report issued about religious freedom in Tanzania in 2013 by the US State Department, Muslims constitute up to 98% in Zanzibar only, including 80 -90% Sunnis, and the remaining are distributed over a number of Shiite doctrines embraced by Asian- origins people.
In a study by Dr. Mohamed Sheikh Albo from Mount Kenya University, in which he collected much information about the activities of Shiite minority in Kenya, He stated that the Shiite groups in Kenya are divided into two major divisions, Twelvers Imams and Ismaili (al-Bohrah). It is important to know that Twelvers sect is the most active in promoting Shi’ism although their minor number, but most of them exist in Nairobi, Mombasa, Kusumo and some other major cities. This activity is entrusted to Shiite organizations such as Bilal Muslim charity organization that was founded by Mr. Said Akhtar Razavi, where he pointed out that its activities are concentrated in the eastern coast, targeting and attracting young Sunnis not Christian people in these areas through various educational missions and religious activities.
Dr. Mohammed Noh also noted that these rates are increasing, due to the support provided by Iran to these organizations. Given the history of the organization in the east of Africa, we find out that Mr. Razavi founded this organization after his visit to the Iraqi reference Mr. Mohsen al-Hakim in the seventies of the last century.
Economically, the fact is not much different from that in other parts of Africa. In 2007, trade exchange between Iran and Ethiopia reached 35 million USDs after it recorded 19 million USDs at the end of 2004. By 2008, the two countries signed several agreements to boost cooperation in gas and other agricultural fields.
In Kenya, Iran has offered to construct nuclear power plants, cooperation in agricultural fields, equipment, and energy. It is important to note that tourism is one of the most important national sources of income in the Horn of Africa countries such as Kenya and Tanzania. Horn of Africa countries are known for their attraction of foreign tourism, which encourages Iranian youth to invest in these countries. I have met many of Iranians in Nairobi who own traveling agencies and companies for importing oil. One of them was called Mohammed Mir Jafri. I met him in 2013 through one of my fellow Turks. At that time he couldn’t afford his residence rent. However, two years later, I found out that he opened a branch for (Bitumen) company for exporting Iranian oil in Kenya called Cyrus Petroleum, which is according to its website, is newly established and works in ten countries . Another friend of him also owns a tourist company that works in Kenya and Tanzania.
I have noted that they are more liberal and have nothing to do with religion. On the contrary, they attract non-Muslims and local and foreign tourists.
Iran has taken advantage of the weak presence of Arab youth investors in the African continent to increase its influence. It promotes itself as a Muslim economic power to attract African states. Finally, Iran is supporting some African Eastern countries materially and morally to gain a strategic location such as Eritrea that Iran granted a loan of 25 million euros in 2009 after a visit by the Eritrean President. It is also known that Iran has a military base in Eritrea that enabled it to support rebels during the Decisive Storm military operation.
» Central and Southern states – Sub-Saharan Africa
The majority of these countries are non-Muslims, who are classified as religious minority, which makes Iran very much focused on building strong economic and political ties away from religion.
The central and southern regions – South Africa also known of their abundant amounts of natural resources such as oil and uranium. For example, Angola is an oil-rich country. In 2009, Iran sold 20% of South Pars gas field project -12 in favor of the Angolan national oil company, which equals 1.5 billion USD. Another example is South Africa that has a very strong relationship with Iran in several fields mainly oil, which was the basis for the Iranian – South African relations during the mid-nineties of last century.
The volume of trade exchange between the two countries in 2007 was four billion USD, led by oil exports. Despite the international sanctions on Iran and intimate relations of South Africa with America, this country is still the main ally of Iran in the South Sub-Saharan Africa. Because of this cooperation, Iran granted a license for (MTN) South African Company to operate on its territory, in 2007-2008. Now the company covers 40% of the network of mobile phones in Iran.
In addition to that, one of the most prominent countries that concern Iran in the African middle states is the rich uranium Republic of Congo which is flooded in civil wars. Congo provides Iran with its needs of uranium unofficially. In 2006 Tanzania made a report to the United Nations about the seizure of a shipment of uranium going from the Republic of Congo and headed to Iran, which was rejected by the Republic of Congo.
This big development in the economic and political relations between Iran and most countries of the region, particularly, active states on the international level, and the uranium-rich countries is a strategic objective for Iran. Iran is aware of the points of strength of African countries. By building strong relationships with them in many aspects, it can circumvent sanctions. Furthermore, Iran can exploit the African countries need for low-cost services and industries, and supply them with such products.
Iran is seeking to attract these countries to international forums, to save it from international sanctions in many files such as human rights and nuclear programs. Iran has succeeded to drop the international resolutions, using its allies in the southern sub-Saharan Africa countries. In 2008 the International Atomic Energy Agency reported Iran’s continuation of uranium enrichment, which made it use membership of South Africa in the Security Council against the adoption of more sanctions on Iran. In March 2008, South African Ambassador to the United Nations also repeated his country’s rejection of the US and Israeli efforts to siege the Iranian nuclear program by imposing more sanctions. He further supported Iran’s right to gain nuclear technology and lifting all sanctions to find a diplomatic solution for this file.
Despite his country’s policy of non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, South Africa supports Iran’s right to gain those weapons. Therefore, it is important not to underestimate African countries votes in international forums since they represent one-third of the United Nations Organization seats. Iranian officials usually repeat the same slogans of standing side by side with Africa against the Western domination and colonialism. Iran knows well the problem of Africans against imperialism powers, so it is trying to show itself as an ally for these states facing this tyranny through its revolution as stated by Ali Larijani in November 2010 .
Despite the criticism to Ahmadinejad’s government about depending on African countries that can’t renounce donor countries like America, Britain, and others and join the Iranian bloc. In 2010 Nigeria and Uganda voted in favor of adding more sanctions on Iran by the United Nations, which toppled Ahmadinejad’s investments to attract votes in order to drop the international resolutions.
♦ Findings of the study
Iran has succeeded to gain a foothold in Africa on all economic, political and social levels, and is still expanding.
Iran has succeeded in spreading Shi’ism in non-Shiite countries.
Iranian organizations exploit the absence of Arab-supported organizations to do charity work.