Relations between Iran and the African continent intensified under the regime of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah, who held power for nearly four decades before being overthrown in 1979.
An ally of the West, and in the context of the Cold War, he focused toward the end of his reign on preventing the expansion of communism in a newly decolonized Africa. In doing so, he kindled relations with leaders in places such as Egypt, South Africa, Algeria and Morocco.
Iran, a country that had benefited from the first oil crisis, wanted to extend its influence, and so it also provided financial and economic support to Sudan, Somalia, Senegal, Ethiopia and Zaire. "But Africa was only one element of the Pahlavi regime's foreign policy and not a priority," says Clément Therme, a post-doctoral researcher at Sciences Po Paris and a specialist on Iran.
The Shah's ousting and the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran marked a turning point in relations between Tehran and the African continent. From the 1980s, the new regime sought to export its Islamic revolution.
The leadership thus began an expansionist policy combining Shia ideology and anti-imperialism. The Islamic Republic joined the movement of non-aligned nations and was seen as the defender of oppressed countries in the face of Western, especially American, domination.
In 1986, while Iran was at war with Iraq, Ali Khamenei, then president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, visited Africa for the first time, notably Mozambique and Angola, to discuss oil supplies, industrial cooperation and agricultural development. The visit was meant to assert Tehran's influence, but also garner support in the fight against Saddam Hussein.
According to Alhadji Bouba Nouhou, associate researcher at the Montesquieu Center for Political Research (CMRP) in Bordeaux and author of L'Iran et L'Afrique : une coopération à l'épreuve des faits, Iran was rapidly developing an economic policy aimed "at loosening the lock of the embargo" imposed by the United States since 1984 and especially since 1995.
Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani visited Africa in 1991 and again in 1996. His successor, Mohammad Khatami, returned in January 2005. Iran was targeting the West African market while maintaining good relations with South Africa.
Under the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013), Iran leveraged its influence in Africa on development aid. As Nouhou writes, in March 2005, the country signed an agreement for $1.5 million in aid to the Ghanaian state budget.
Automobile assembly plants, oil supply, gas extraction, electricity, consumer goods: Iran was gradually increasing its trade with Africa and also developing military cooperation, particularly in the naval sector. The country was also spending large sums of money to build social and health infrastructures, notably through the Iranian Red Crescent Society.
Iran must find the gray areas.
In 2017, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif opened a hospital in Kampala, Uganda, partly financed by the Islamic Republic. According to Masoud Kamali Ardakani, former director general of Iran's Trade Promotion Organization (TPO) Office for Arabian and African Countries, trade between Iran and Africa reached a record $1.2 billion between 2017 and 2018.
But despite this growth, trade with Iran in 2018 represented only 0.12% of Africa's total trade with the world. Iranian exports amounted to just $600 million between 2018 and 2019.
Ahmadinejad shaking hands with Ghanaian President Mahama in 2013 — Photo: Xinhua via ZUMA Wire
In October 2020, the new director general of Iran's TPO Office of Arabian and African Countries, Farzad Piltan, said the organization would redefine its strategy to enable Iran to benefit from the advantages of the African market, without giving any details.
"The Iranian strategy in Africa is more political than based on economic rationality," says Clément Therme. "The economic strategy has limited success, except in South Africa, where relations are deeper."
Alex Vatanka, director of the Iran program at the Middle East Institute, says that to circumvent U.S. sanctions, Iran "must find the gray areas that are not closely monitored by the U.S. to conduct its transactions." He adds, however, that Iran's traditional market is Europe and, in recent years, East Asia, particularly China.
"Iran's African policy is a secondary project that is linked to a larger project: competition with the United States," Vatanka says.
Iran has not concealed this plan. In 2012, at the 16th Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran, the Islamic Republic reaffirmed its right to a peaceful nuclear program. "When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power, he hoped to find diplomatic allies to support him at the United Nations, but that did not really work," says Vatanka.
Iran has sought to show that it is not isolated on the international scene and that it's not alone in having problems with the United States. Within its own borders, Tehran also wants to promote its image as an influential global power. But this is a propaganda message that the population no longer believes in, especially when it comes to Africa. Indeed, Iranians have seen no return on investment from their leaders' African policy. In Vatanka's opinion, Iran's ideological foreign policy in Africa is a disaster. "It costs Iran money, labor and markets. This is true in Africa, but also elsewhere," he says.
Iranian diplomacy in Africa has, in fact, revealed its limitations. Iran, which has 25 embassies in Africa, must also face Saudi Arabia. The Sunni kingdom takes a dim view of the presence of the Shia power in Africa.
Egypt and Morocco are also concerned about Iranian proselytism. Morocco, for example, has already severed its relations with Iran twice, first in 2009, when it denounced Tehran's religious "activism," and again in 2018, when it accused Iran of supporting the Polisario in Western Sahara via Lebanese Hezbollah.
In fact, Iran is regularly suspected of arms trafficking in Africa. Senegal broke off diplomatic relations with Iran following the seizure of an arms shipment in Lagos in 2010, but relations were renewed in 2013.
Following the execution of Shia Sheikh Nimr Baqr al-Nimr in 2016 by Saudi Arabia, Djibouti and Somalia announced they were severing diplomatic relations with Iran. Sudan, although a long-time ally of Tehran, has done the same.
"The Cold War between Saudi Arabia and Iran has been transferred to Africa," says Therme. Indeed, the two powers have already been confronting each other by proxy in Yemen since 2015. The nations that have recently severed their relations with Iran have all joined the Saudi coalition against the Houthis, supported by the Islamic Republic. Morocco, for its part, suspended its military participation in 2019.
If Iranian interference and rivalry with Saudi Arabia are damaging economic relations between Iran and Africa, Washington's exit from the Iranian nuclear deal and the restoration of American sanctions in 2018 complicate the situation even more. Indeed, at a time when Iran is experiencing an unprecedented economic crisis, how can it compete with powers such as China or Russia, which are increasingly influential on the African continent?
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