Iran’s Policy in Africa: Between Ideological Dimensions and Economic Enticement

ByClément Therme

Iran’s influence in Africa regularly attracts the attention of Israeli experts and, to a lesser extent, the Gulf States. In Europe, on the other hand, this matter remains under addressed; attention focuses more on Iran’s regional influence in the Levant or on its nuclear program.  Iran has cultivated strong relations with several African countries; some are old, whereas others are new. Since the second half of the 20th century, Iran’s Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1941-1979), an ally of the United States, began to develop a strategy of influence towards Africa. In the midst of the Cold War, the objective was then twofold: to limit the spread of communism  in Africa, hence political and financial support was provided to  several  African  states (Sudan, Zaire, Somalia, Ethiopia, Senegal, South Africa), and  strengthen  Iran’s presence in the waters of the Gulf, the Indian Ocean and even on the coasts of East Africa.

The 1979 revolution changed Iran’s global objectives.  The Shah had pursued an international strategy based on defending Iran’s national interests, whereas the new “Islamic Republic” embraced a revolutionary foreign policy based on exporting the Khomeinist revolution.  Since the Iranian revolution, Tehran has been trying to strengthen its cooperation with developing countries in general and African states in particular. The new Iranian political system, representing a new religious-political establishment, based its diplomatic strategy on the promotion of religious discourse. However, this new religious discourse was at odds with the religious landscape in Africa, almost all of the Muslim populations followed the Sunni sect and practiced Sufism.  While there is now close proximity between Tehran and some Sufi movements in Africa,*[1] there were no pre-existing transnational Shiite clerical networks in the continent before 1979.

To remedy this, since 1979, Iran has been trying to develop a network of mosques, cultural and charitable centers operating under the guise of developmental and educational institutions to promote Iranian revolutionary ideology.  Iranian organizations such as the Islamic Culture and Relations Organization (ICRO) are used as fronts for the Quds Force to carry out its operations in Africa.  In terms of Iran’s global ambitions, Africa has become a central piece in its ideological expansionism and destabilization operations to harm Western interests.

 In response to the Clinton administration’s policy of dual containment (targeting Iraq and Iran) in the 1990s, Iran attempted to avoid international isolation. The policy targeted Iran’s oil and gas sectors. Iran tried to build a network of influence among African countries that embraced an anti-American political line. Iran targeted Sudan and other African countries such as Kenya, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, and South Africa.

Iran-Africa relations continued to prosper under the Khatami presidency (1997-2005) and then strengthened under the Ahmadinejad presidency (2005-2013). Networks of influence developed under the cover of diplomatic missions, often through cultural attachés, harming Western interests and containing the influence of regional rivals.

Against the backdrop of the ongoing nuclear talks, and attempts to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran, as well as its main regional ally, the Lebanese Hezbollah, have continued to forge ties in Africa. The two actors can notably rely on the Lebanese Shiite communities in Africa. There are approximately between 200,000 and 300,000 Lebanese in Africa. Côte d’Ivoire has the largest Lebanese diaspora in West Africa with over 100,000 expatriates; in this country, 90 percent of the Lebanese community lives in Abidjan. For instance, a delegation from Iran’s Ministry of Defense attended the ShieldAfrica International Security and Defense Exhibition, held in Abidjan from June 8 to June 10, 20212021. Tehran is developing its economic and security relations with Abidjan beyond its diplomatic exchanges with the Ivorian country.  Iran’s new Ambassador to Côte d’Ivoire Majidi Koorosh said in Abidjan that his objective is to develop an economic program with the country  because it possesses great  potential. “Côte d’Ivoire is an impressive country for me with strong structures, a lot of potential and a lot of capacity to work. I have already given a four-year program to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as to the President of the Republic. My program in Côte d’Ivoire is an economic program,” he said during a meeting with the Ivorian Press Agency (AIP).

 Beyond the official channels, there are indeed many Iranian links with Côte d’Ivoire through its large Lebanese Shiite community.  There are approximately between 15,000 and 30,000 Lebanese in Senegal.  Some African countries have smaller Lebanese communities, for example, there are only 1,000 Lebanese in Mali or Burkina Faso.

Iranian diplomacy in Africa is expected to intensify in the coming years. Indeed, for the new Iranian administration, Africa is a priority and a privileged place to threaten Western interests.

Speaking in a meeting with the Speaker of the National People’s Assembly of Guinea-Bissau Cipriano Cassamá, Raisi said, “In the new government, all capacities for cooperation with African countries will be seriously activated. ”

Following the  killing of Quds Force Commander General Qassem Soleimani in Iraq in January 2020, several attempts by Iran to  assassinate American diplomats have been thwarted on African soil.

Focus on Relations With Cameroon

Unlike Sudan, Cameroon has never been one of Iran’s major African partner states. Cameroon is an interesting country for Tehran for several reasons.  It is a country bordering Nigeria, a priority country for Iranian diplomacy given its large Shiite community. Even though Iran has been able to entice some Africans, it is clear that Shiite conversions have been limited. It has even been observed that certain  attempts at Shiite settlement have provoked clashes with traditional Sunni currents, for example in Nigeria in Katsina in 1991 or in Cameroon in Douala in 1999 then N’Gaoundéré in 2012. Despite these limitations, in Nigeria, Iran  has engaged with religious leaders and supported the Assembly of Ulema and the Muslim Student Society, which operates 11,000 schools, colleges and universities. The now-banned Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), led by Sheikh Ebrahim Zakzaki, who was arrested in 2015,  is believed to have been instrumental in converting Africans to Shiite Islam. It operates  some 300 local schools and has a million additional members in Niger, Cameroon, Chad, Burkina Faso and Ghana. The IMN recruited members in Central Africa and specifically encouraged conversions to  Shiite Islam in Cameroon and Chad.

Iranian initiatives nevertheless exist to bring Iran and Cameroon  closer together. With a Muslim population estimated to be 20.9 percent of the total population,  Cameroon has witnessed the promotion of Shiism, which is currently a minority. Moreover, Cameroon has helped Iran to circumvent US sanctions.  The oil tanker TELLUS (IMO: 9246138), with a Cameroon flag,  made five transfers  on behalf of Iran, corresponding  to more than 3 million barrels of oil  during the year 2021.

Beyond these religious and economic networks, Tehran also proposed to cooperate with Cameron in countering terrorism in 2014. On the economic level, Tehran proposed to sell oil to Cameroon and cooperate in the building of infrastructures.

“Axis of Resistance” and Economic Priorities

As mentioned, President Raisi has emphasized the importance of Iran strengthening relations with African countries. This is in light of  Raisi’s intention to strengthen  the “Axis of Resistance” alliance and  circumvent US sanctions by  advancing economic relations with African countries.  Indeed,  Iran should achieve its objective for the Iranian year March 2021 to March 2022 of exporting goods worth $1 billion to Africa  with a potential to be achieved in the coming years, estimated by the Iranian authorities at $5 billion annually for  Iran-Africa trade. This African priority of the new administration is also reflected in the appointment of the new Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian who was previously deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs. Tehran has focused its economic, cultural, and political efforts on Nigeria, Senegal, Cameroon, and Tanzania. These efforts will most likely be strengthened under the Raisi administration.

On the whole, Iran’s presence in Africa aims to resist international and regional pressures to change its behavior by seeking strategic depth. This expansionist Iranian policy in Africa is first and foremost to deter the United States from attacking Iranian targets in the Middle East while expanding spheres of influence in another continent. At the same time, the objective is to find economic opportunities in countries not vulnerable to US economic pressures. The abovementioned goals explain the Iranian search for new allies among marginalized countries or among those who cannot rely on the United States for security.  

[1] * For instance, in Nigeria, Tehran  moved  close to the leader of the  tijaniyyah Sufi tariqah,  Sheikh Dahiru Bauchi, to exert influence  in Africa’s most populous country. In Mali, Iran opened seminaries and libraries.  Also, the leader of the Ansar Dine movement in Mali, Chérif Ousmane Madani Haïdara, gave himself the honorific title of  as-Sayyid.  See Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos, « L’Iran en Afrique Subsaharienne » in Clément Therme (dir.), L’Iran et ses rivaux, Passés composés, 2020.

 Opinions in this article reflect the writer’s point of view, not necessarily the view of Rasanah

Clément Therme
Clément Therme
a non-resident fellow at Rasanah-IIIS and a Research Associate at the School for Advanced Studies in Social Sciences (EHESS) in Paris.