Iranian presence in Africa: motives and objectives

ByDr. Mo'tasem Siddiq Abdullah

Iranian opening to Africa is backing to the era of former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who had paid much attention for this continent and that was after his visit to Sudan in 1991 after overthrowing the government of Sadiq al-Mahdi by Omar al-Bashir.
Rafsanjani’s visit to Sudan represented considerable support for al-Bashir’s government, which was living in isolation due to the embargo imposed by the international community.
This visit marked a new era in the Iranian relations with Africa also a starting point to expand its concern in this continent, as this expansion extended to include other African countries such as South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, Senegal, Comoros, Somalia, Djibouti, and Ghana.
Among succession of the Iranian presidency, Africa was on the state agenda. After Rafsanjani’s visit to Sudan, which followed by another one in 1996, Mohammad Khatami’s visits to some African countries gave a new impetus of new relations with these countries through establishing frameworks and joint committees which have been handled the task of following up agreements between Iran and these countries. Then Ahmadinejad, who has made several visits to Africa that marked mostly by an ideological character [1]. After that, President Hassan Rouhani dispatched his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif in several visits to East Africa in the winter of 2014, and another visit to North African countries in the summer of 2015, in addition to his recent trip to West Africa in July 2016. Perhaps those successive visits reflect the desire of the Iranian regime to move forward in consolidating relations with the largest number of African countries.
These consecutive visits of Iranian officials appeared in joint committees between these countries and Iran which resulted in bilateral treaties and agreements in dam construction, automotive industry, energy, as well as financial and banking affairs. Furthermore, cultural and educational cooperation. Iran also provided attractive economic promises through which many African nations forced to make concessions in strategic and security files.
The Iranian regime motives varied behind the incursion in Africa from one country to another, economically, politically and religious. Moreover, to achieve the objectives of the Iranian regime in the African continent, it had to search for strategic areas from which begins and uses primary pathway to reach the desired targets. The focus was on Sudan and Nigeria clearly, and that because of their extraordinary features compared to the countries of the region.
This Iranian vast openness and focus on Sudan and Nigeria has an adverse impact on social and cultural fabric of these countries, as reflected negatively on the relationship between Sudan and Arab surroundings, so the main question of this study is:
What are the main reasons and motives of the Iranian presence in Sudan and Nigeria?

Motives of the Iranian focus on Sudan and Nigeria
-Iran has given Sudan a great concern because of its geostrategic backyard Arabian location, at the same time, Sudan is a gateway to East Africa, so Iran has sought to make it a platform for its influence on the rest of the African countries.
-Iran and Sudan stand in one square in the face of US pressure.
-After the victory of the so-called “Salvation Revolution” in 1989 and Omar al-Bashir reached to power, it becomes clear to the world that the new regime’s orientation of the new regime in Sudan is Islamic. Consequently, Iran initiated to contain and support the Sudan regime as a similar Islamic state, despite the difference amongst sects, and that is why Iran found only an Arab ally in Bashir’s regime, which shares its ideological visions.
-Nigeria would gain particular importance in Iran with West Africa, Nigeria has its high population density, and more than half of them are Muslims, also has strategic and economic importance as one of the most important oil-producing countries in Africa.
-Nigeria supports and sympathizes with the Iranian regime, as well as the existence of thousands of Shiites, who have been affected by Shiism movement adopted by Iran after the revolution’s victory.
This study assumes that spreading Shiism is the most prominent objectives that Iran seeks to achieve in Sudan and Nigeria.

Ways of expanding Shiism in Sudan and Nigeria
1- Embassies.
2- Cultural Centers.
3- Revolutionary Guards.
4- Companies and Institutions.
5- Clergies.

The Iranian existence in Sudan: Objectives and Impacts
After the arrival of Omar Al-Bashir to power on June 30, 1989, the Sudanese-Iranian relations have seen great convergence, reached a strategic alliance in a lot of files, this relationship has aroused the interest of Arab world in general, and Gulf states in particular.
The relations of two countries culminated with mutual visits between presidents, where former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani conducted two visits to Sudan in 1991 and 1996, also when Mohammad Khatami visited Khartoum in 2006 within his African tour at that time, and then came Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visits to Khartoum in 2008 and 2011.
The Sudanese president is also recorded a number of visits to Iran, the first visit was in 1997 to participate in the Islamic Conference Summit, and the second one was in 2006. [2]
Iran considers Sudan as a gateway to the African and Arab countries, and Iranian officials were always going to contend in their statements that Sudan is the gate to export revolution, Iranian former defense minister; Mostafa Mohammad Najjar described Sudan as “a cornerstone of Iran’s strategy in the African continent.” [3]
Despite the fact that doctrinal and historical reference is opposed to the two countries, the Sudanese government had to deal pragmatically with its foreign policy towards Iran, because of its need for the military, political and financial help.
Accordingly, the real factor, which obligated Sudan at that time to deal with Iran, was the overseas targeting of US and European pressure on Bashir’s government. The Sudanese regime believed that Iran its lifeline due to economic and political blockade that was imposed after Sudan inclusion in the list of terrorist sponsor states and accusing it of radical movements supporting as well as its attempt to assassin the former Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak in 1995 in Addis Ababa.
Because of the civil war taking place in Sudan, Bashir’s government has sought to take advantage of Iran’s military experiences, rather than abide to use Russian weapons, as well as his ambition to benefit from the Iranian support in the alleviation of external debt. Nevertheless, later, Sudan’s debt to Iran became the biggest way to be exploited by Tehran to pressure Khartoum in order to achieve its objectives. [4]These debts have remained a major obstacle in front of the largest economic relationship, where Sudan obstructed in paying debts and tried to schedule and payback them, but Tehran has been required to pay these debts before implementing any new projects.
Iran has worked since entering Sudan, to diffuse Shiism as a priority of its strategy in this country, across religious institutions and cultural centers in Khartoum.
The role of attaches and cultural centers of literature and arts fields, in identifying its culture, inherited tourism features and civilization. However, Iran veered by these centers from the announced diplomatic and cultural purpose; it became a platform for promoting ideas and books related to Shiism. These centers also worked hard over the past years, to deepen cultural relations with all relevant authorities, such as newspapers, universities, public libraries, the Ministry of Guidance, federations of women, youth and students, organizing Shiite ceremonies, such as Imam Reza, and Fatima Azzahra births, and the memory of Karbala, and other ceremonies. [5]
These centers were able to extract customs exemptions, benefiting from agreements concluded between the two countries, to enter books, audio, and visual tapes. Iran also has published and distributed large quantities on Sufis, students and religious institutions in Sudan.
The centers that were administered mostly by clerics contributed in Sudanese embracing Shiism, after incursion among young people, students, intellectuals and Sufis.
Despite the lack of accurate official statistics about the number of Shiites in Sudan, the unofficial estimates indicate that there are 10 to 12 thousand Shiite. According to estimates of other non-official reports, the number of Shiites in Sudan amounted with 13 thousand in 2013; some people questioned this figure and confined Sudanese Shiites in no more than three thousand.
The spread of Shiite Husseiniat among some areas in Sudan, especially Khartoum, hinting another increase in Shiism movement, according to unofficial estimates, reached recently to nearly 15 Hussienieh, as well as Shiites control on mosques number in various parts of the state. [6]
Furthermore, to strengthen the bonds of cooperation with the Sudanese government, Iran has provided military aids and concluded a number of agreements with al-Bashir’s government. Military cooperation between the two countries reached signing a military cooperation treaty in 2008, and constructing arms and ammunition facility in Sudan, as an Iranian exploitation of Sudanese government’s urgent need of weapon in its war against armed movements in southern Sudan (before separation), as well as Darfur, Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan.
Economically, during mutual visits between the two countries, agreements have been signed in oil and gas manufacturing fields, also agreed to establish a joint fund of investment with 200 million USD. In addition to Iran willingness to cooperate in agriculture, energy, construction of thermal power plants fields, as well as implementing water and sanitation projects, Auto production lines, transportation, automotive assembly plants and the Iranian tractors in “Jeiad” Sudanese Auto plant. [6]
Bashir’s government has not benefited economically from Iran; most of these agreements have not been implemented, and Iran merely carry out a limited number of agreements that serve its interests and objectives in Sudan.
This limited economic cooperation would not worry Arab countries more than security and cultural cooperation, which has expanded clearly in recent years. This period witnessed docking of Iranian warships in the Sudanese ports by pretext of exchanging experiences with the Sudanese naval forces, as well as Iran’s attempt to create a defensive platform on the Sudanese coasts [8]. This move considered by many constituencies as an Iranian attempt to review its strength and send a negative and provocative messages for Arab countries, which reflected negatively on Bashir’s government and increased its isolation away from the Arab world .
The turning point in the bilateral relationship between the two nations was after Sudan expelled the Iranian cultural attaché and closing the Iranian cultural centers, arguing that these centers are publishing Shiism among Sudanese citizens. Sudanese Foreign Ministry also announced that these centers exceeded its granted ratification, and has become a threat to intellectual and social security in Sudan.
This arose after the Sudanese government discerned that the Iranian presence in the country has become a genuine threat toward social fabric due to Shiism diffusing efforts.
The Iranian interference and attempts of extending in the Arab countries as well as supporting Houthis in Yemen, in addition, to break into the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, and its consulate in Mashhad, all that represented a suitable opportunity for the Sudanese government to sever political ties with Iran.
Although the last Sudanese government’s actions toward Iran, some believe that this awakening came lately and was not as required level, these parties also accused the government of prior awareness of these activities that were designed to diffuse the Shiite belief, but it did not move at the appropriate moment to address them.

The Iranian existence in Nigeria: Objectives and Results
The Iranian-Nigeria relations is almost similar to Sudanese, where Iran has worked to conclude many deals with Nigeria’s successive governments. Moreover, focusing on the cultural dimension that represented by building mosques and religious schools, in an attempt to reach its main objective, which is diffusing Shiism among Nigerian society, through activating its direct and hidden tools, exploiting the loyalists and sympathizers of Nigerians .Nigeria represents one of the largest Muslim communities in West Africa, with 55% of Muslims, mostly Sunnis, and Shiite minority affected by Iran in the northern states, particularly in Kano, Kaduna and Zaria.
Iran’s efforts contributed over the past years in the Shiism of a large number of Nigerians. The Nigerians Shiite leader Ibrahim Zakzaki considered as the most prominent pro-Iranian and defenders of its project to diffuse Shiism in his country.
Islam entered Nigeria in the eighteenth century and remained at Maliki doctrine, but in the early eighties of the last century, a group of young people began to embrace the Shiite sect, including Ibrahim Zakzaki, who graduated from Ahmed Bello University [9]. Zakzaki affected by Shiism after reading English translations of Shiite books, which was distributed by the Iranian embassy at the time, but Zakzaki did not show his Shiism until mid-nineties when he libels the great companion, Abu Huraira, which has been opposed by a large number of his supporters that abandon him .
After this incident, Iran has stepped up its efforts to diffuse Shiism in this country, through its unlimited support for Ibrahim Zakzaki and his group, as part of their attempts to clone Hezbollah in Nigeria to maintain its Shiite activity. That is evident in the great support which this group received by Iran, such as military support and training that the group conducted for its elements on gang wars, using light weapons and grenades manufacture and bomb-making. [10]
Those events that Zaria witnessed in December 2015 marked the beginning of the Iranian project end, so when the Nigerian army attacked “Baqiatullah” Hussienieh in Zaria, where the Islamic movement. This movement accused the government of orchestrating the assassination attempt of army chief of staff, Gen. Tukur Yusuf Borautai, which led to the death of hundreds and the arrest of movement’s leader, who is still in prison.
The debate sparked by Iran after this incident has had a great impact on the Iranian presence rejection in the country and shed more light on this presence and alert to its risks, amid calls to respond and deal with the same firmness in which the government faced “Boko Haram” extremist group. The controversy stirred up by Iran in its official protest against the Nigerian government due to the attack on Shiites by the army, in addition to the call that made by Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani with his Nigerian counterpart, Mohammed Bukhari, and demanding to form a committee of inquiry into the incident .
The Iranian Foreign Ministry summoned the Nigerian Chargé d’Affaires of in Tehran to protest against the incident and demanded from the Nigerian authorities to “determine the incident dimensions, treat the wounded and compensation of losses and damages as soon as possible.” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif also called his Nigerian counterpart, Jeffrey Unyama, and asked his government to move “immediately and seriously to avoid violence” against Shiites in Nigeria [11], which Nigerians considered as an interference in their internal affairs and an attempt to lay discord in the country .
After this incident, Iran and Nigeria had stagnant relations, until of Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif last visit to the West African States, initiated by Nigeria, where he met with the Nigerian President, Mohammed Bukhari. Zarif informed the Nigerian authorities –according to the comments of Ali Falah Zoromi, al-Mustafa University representative- the concern about Nigerian Shiite leader, Ibrahim Zakzaki’s health status, calling for Nigerian government to release him [12]
The Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs, Hossein Gabri Ansari declared that his country would hold consultations with Nigeria about Ibrahim Zakzaki issue to provide the releasing possibility and following-up his health [13].

The future of the Iranian presence in Sudan and Nigeria
Many political and religious institutions in Sudan and Nigeria contributed to sensitize domestic public opinion about the seriousness of the Iranian presence on the social fabric as well as security and stability of Africa in general, and on Sudan and Nigeria in particular. Nigeria still enjoys political relations with Iran, but it realized the seriousness of cultural relations with them and began to practice strong observe on Shiite groups and curtail its activity.
In Sudan, Bashir’s government has closed the door in front of Iran after severing political ties and closed cultural centers that contributed to diffuse Shiism. Iran also realized the great popular rejection size and the impossibility of achieving its target of exporting the revolution to Sudan and diffuse Shiism in the future.
The effect of severing ties between Khartoum and Tehran on Foreign Relations of Sudan, the decision represents a message for the external parties in general, and to the Gulf States in particular. This message says, Khartoum is serious about scaling relations with Iran and is eager to return to its Arab surrounding, aware of the seriousness of rapprochement repercussions with Iran on the present and future of the country.

Iran exploited the cultural, social and even political vacuum, caused by Arab’s being away the African arena, by taking advantage of one of the main principles of the revolution and to “Support the Oppressed” in various parts of the world, so it found in some African countries, such as Sudan and Nigeria, a fertile and suitable ground for diffusing Shiite doctrine, which represents one of the most important strategies in the continent. Iran has also sought through its relations with Sudan, Nigeria, and other African countries to achieve the other objectives of the following:

First: Exporting the Revolution
second: Exiting the imposed international isolation before and after the nuclear deal
Third: Achieve some economic gains
Fourth: pursuing intelligence activity in the continent by sending elements of the Revolutionary Guards and intelligence to a number of African countries as businessmen and investors to carry out intelligence work against the United States, Israel and some Arab nations that have projects and interests in Africa.

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Dr. Mo'tasem Siddiq Abdullah
Dr. Mo'tasem Siddiq Abdullah
Political researcher at Arabian Gulf Centre for Iranian Studies