Following its reconciliation with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the renewal of diplomatic relations with the Gulf States, Iran is stepping up its “diplomatic blitz,” this time aimed at North Africa, Sudan and East Africa.
These regions have witnessed the impact of Iran’s military and terrorist subversion, but were at times also part of an intense diplomatic, political, economic and military cooperation with the Islamic Republic. For the first time since the visit of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the African continent 11 years ago, an Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, on July 12–13 visited three African countries in the Horn of Africa— Uganda, Kenya and Zimbabwe—that have always been a focus of interest to Tehran.
Indeed, Iran attaches particular importance to Eastern African countries. It sees in this region a vast and fertile field for political, military, and economic activities, particularly the countries bordering the Red Sea coast. However, until now, Iran has yet to forge robust partnerships across Africa.
Despite the tendency of Iranian officials (such as the director general of African Affairs at the Iranian Foreign Ministry) to present Iran’s supposedly strong ties with African states as a replacement for its almost nonexistent relations with the European Union and lack of diplomatic ties with the United States, Tehran’s presence and influence in the region pales in comparison to that of its neighbors. With fewer than 20 embassies in Africa, Iran’s limited diplomatic presence underscores its lack of a vision for developing comprehensive African relationships to compensate for its isolation elsewhere.
In contrast, Turkey has embassies in 44 African countries, while Turkish Airways serves 55 destinations in Africa—two assets Turkey has used to develop strategic and diplomatic clout across the continent.
Tehran’s diplomatic absence is not the only reason it has been relegated to the role of junior player on the world’s second-largest continent. Iran is also perceived as a malign actor by many governments in Africa—mainly due to its efforts to export its favored version of political Islam—making them suspicious of Iran’s intentions and reluctant to embrace it as a trusted partner.
Are we on the verge of a turning point toward Africa by Iran’s decision-makers?
Indeed, the geopolitical context had changed radically: The Trump administration succeeded with the signing of the “Abraham Accords” in normalizing relations between Israel, Morocco and the leading Gulf states, while Sudan had already been approached and expressed its readiness to join the Accords. Rumors also spread almost daily relating to a possible rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia, while the kingdom is hosting for the first time an Israeli gaming team, playing the Israeli anthem at the beginning of the tournament.
The strategic playing field is more complex as Iran’s regional competitors—Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Israel—have each developed extensive economic and security relations across Africa.
With this background, it seems that Raisi’s visits to the Horn of Africa, together with a renewed effort to approach African potential partners, represent an Iranian effort to “retune” Iran’s relations with the African continent, a continent Raisi’s predecessor, Hassan Rouhani (2013 -2021), chose to neglect during his eight years tenure. Instead, he prioritized détente and rapprochement with the United States, Western Europe, China and Russia, which culminated with the signature of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action ( JCPOA) in 2015 and the partial lifting of sanctions that accompanied it in 2016.
Rouhani’s attitude toward Africa was mirrored by the list of his official visits outside Iran. As of 2020, Rouhani had visited over 55 countries in Europe, Asia and the Americas. Rouhani never traveled to Africa. Only the presidents of Ghana, South Africa and Zimbabwe visited Iran, but only after the JCPOA was signed and the sanctions partially revoked in 2016 and 2017. Unlike his predecessors, Rouhani chose not to visit Africa, and the low levels of trade with the continent also reflected his inattention.
Raisi’s ascent to the presidency seems to coincide with a wind of change blowing from Tehran, which had already impacted its policy and decision-making. In his annual speech on the Nowruz, the Persian New Year, which fell on March 21, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared, “Strong relations with Africa and Latin America are part of our definite agenda and, God willing, we will pursue this plan.”
Facing this restructuring of the region and its present situation, Iran has embarked on a policy meant to:
- “Diffuse” the concerted effort by Israel and the United States to counterbalance its Shi’ite Crescent by initiating “an offensive of smiles” focused on Israel’s direct partners in the Abraham Accords, going as far as re-establishing diplomatic relations with potential new partners to the Accords (like Saudi Arabia), sworn enemies of the recent past.
- Counter the renewed Israeli penetration of the African continent. Iran has been following with great concern the Israeli effort to extend its relations in Africa, culminating with the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with African states following state visits by Israel’s prime minister, finance minister and official delegates from the Foreign Ministry.
- Strengthen and spread Shi’ism through proselytism and corruption. Shi’ism is present in many African states (Nigeria, Comoros, the Horn of Africa states, Senegal and Tanzania) through Iran’s “Organization of Islamic Culture and Relations,” one of the leading Iranian organizations in East Africa.
- Iran opened several Shi’ite centers in Djibouti, headed by the “Ahl al-Bayt Center” in 2014. The Iranian Shi’ite activity has developed recently in Djibouti, and it has become a public phenomenon after working in secrecy through the activities of the Shi’ite centers there. In 2014, the Sudanese and the Somali governments closed down Iranian centers in the two countries and expelled their employees. After the assault on the Saudi consulate in Iran following the execution of the Shi’ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, in January 2016, Somalia and Sudan cut off their diplomatic ties with Iran. Sudan then joined the Saudi Arabia-led “Operation Decisive Storm” alliance coalition to fight the Houthis and restore legal rule in Yemen.
- Extend its military and political presence in the Red Sea and especially in the vicinity of the Gulf of Aden and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, which commands the maritime passage from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean through the coasts of the Horn of Africa and Yemen. It is also worth remembering that Esmail Ghaani, the present commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force, had extensive experience with Africa as his predecessor Qassem Soleimani’s deputy, having made several trips to several African countries during Ahmadinejad’s administration.
- Continue its search for uranium suppliers in Africa. The search for non-enriched uranium is one of the most critical catalysts for Iran to consolidate its relationship with East African countries.
However, at present, Iran is aiming to strengthen its political partnership with Algeria, a key ally and Iran’s leading partner in North Africa. Taking advantage of the enmity between Algeria and Morocco, and Algeria’s opposition to Israeli participation in any all-African forum, to counterbalance the “new” Israeli presence in Morocco following the Abraham Accords and Trump administration’s recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara Tehran offered its support for opposition groups and mainly to the Polisario Front.
The Polisario is a puppet militia organization at the service of Algeria that poses a threat to the Maghreb and Sahel region, and also to Europe. Indeed, Morocco has spoken out on several occasions on this issue, urging Iran to cease its support for the terrorist Sahrawi group and warning that supplying drones to the Polisario will destabilize the region.
Morocco, a key player in the Muslim world and Africa’s sixth-largest economy, has been consistently antagonized by Iran, and the two countries’ relations have been checkered for years. In 2009, Rabat severed relations with Tehran while charging Iran with spreading Shi’ism across Sunni-majority Morocco. After restoring relations five years later, Morocco again cut diplomatic ties with Iran in 2018, accusing it of using Hezbollah to support the Polisario.
Indeed, Algeria allowed the Islamic Republic of Iran to use its embassy in Algiers as a conduit for arms, funding and training for Polisario forces.
The Algerians appeared to be reciprocating by suddenly charging that Israel and a “North African country” were assisting a Berber-speaking movement in northern Algeria, known as Kabylia, which calls for self-determination of its population, effectively breaking it off from Algeria.
Despite the Supreme Leader’s New Year declarations, Iran’s efforts to strengthen its foreign relations in critical regions, including Africa, have made no significant breakthrough. The Iranian commitment to Africa has not produced concrete successes, and no breakthrough should be expected for Iran’s overseas agenda.
Still, unlike his predecessor, Raisi’s policy toward Africa could be interpreted as an effort to retune relations with a continent that has been ignored over the past decade. No doubt Iran will continue to encourage the spread of Shi’ism in Africa while taking advantage of the instability that prevails in many regions in the continent to penetrate those vacillating and shaky regimes, thus combating Western influence and putting up a headwind to Israel’s efforts to consolidate its positions in Africa.
It remains to be seen how Raisi will distance himself from Rouhani’s policies by strengthening relations with these countries beyond rhetoric into practice.
Originally published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.