Iran’s geopolitical focus has been expanding beyond its immediate region, especially in the past couple of years. One of the striking examples of this approach is Iran’s deepening engagement with Africa. On July 12, 2023 the President of Iran Ebrahim Raisi embarked on a three-nation tour to Africa covering Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe. What makes this visit extremely significant is the fact that it is the first visit to Africa by an Iranian President in more than a decade. Iran seems to have stepped up its diplomacy after the United States universally abandoned the nuclear deal in 2018 (JCPOA) and reimposed sanctions on Iran as a result of which it seeks to expand its political and economic relations across Africa.[i] President Raisi’s visit to Africa is in line with Iran’s foreign policy approach to forge new alliances with the developing economies of Global South[ii]. The Iranian President has referred to Africa as the continent of opportunity due to its high economic potential. Iran’s trade partnership with Africa can lead to new prospects and opportunities, from petrochemicals to food and medicines- Iran has exported substantial volumes to Africa since 2021. According to Iran’s Foreign Minister- Iran’s trade with Africa is expected to increase to more than 2 billion dollars in 2023.
In this context it is important to understand the evolution of Iran Africa relations, Africa’s significance for Iran, Iran’s growing engagement with Africa under President Raisi and Iran’s relations with Africa in comparison to its regional stakeholders in West Asia.
Iran Africa relations are rooted in history. Africa has always been one of the key priorities of Iran’s foreign policy. Iran had supported the decolonization process across Africa during the Cold War period. By 1979, Iran partnership with Africa was based on mutual economic, political and strategic interests. During former Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s tenure from 2005 to 2013, Iran sought more active engagement with Africa seeing it as a shield against the international sanctions. President Ahmadinejad’s Africa policy was premised on the religious ties with Shia Islamic communities, South-South cooperation and anti-West sentiments. Iran, during this period, had cultivated ties majorly with the West African states and has opened Shia cultural and educational centers in countries such as Ivory Coast, Liberia and Cameroon. Iran has also made infrastructural investments in Africa such as building hospitals, setting up companies and providing loans as part of its policy of South-South cooperation. These soft power strategies were successful as all the west African states supported Iran such as on the UN vote for the human rights situation in Iran in 2009[iii]. However, Iran’s economy suffered a major setback due to the sanctions imposed under the leadership of US President Barrack Obama. Thus, Iran’s foreign policy shifted its entire focus in pursuing rapprochement with the West, to end the deadlock over Iran’s Nuclear Program, when former President Rouhani came to power in 2013. President Rouhani although referred to Africa as Iran’s top priority and called for strengthening political, economic and cultural relations with Africa, not much efforts were made in pursuing relations with Africa. Rouhani administration’s neglect of Africa was evident from the lack of official visits to Africa and the subsequent decline in Iran – Africa trade during his regime[iv].
Iran’s growing influence in Africa
Since President Raisi assumed his office in 2021, he has focused on a non-Western foreign policy approach based on two key pillars: firstly, on enhancing ties with the East particularly with Russia and China and secondly emphasis on expanding Iran’s influence in Global South particularly with Africa and Latin America.[v]
Africa as continent rich in minerals and renewable energy sources with an efficient human force assumes immense strategic significance for Iran. Africa’s young population (70% of Africa’s population is less than 30) represents a vast market also holds promise of the economic growth. Its strategic location and its diverse economic needs provide Iran a significant opportunity to expand its trade with the continent.
The trade between Iran and Africa has reached 1.8 billion US Dollars during the first ten months of the current fiscal year, registering 22. 4% rise in value on yearly basis. South Africa is the major trade partner with up to 33.81% rise in trade followed by Mozambique and Ghana. Ivory Coast, Djibouti, Algeria, Egypt, Morrocco, Mauritania, Kenya and Tanzania are the other major trade destinations.[vi] The main reason for the rise in Iran’s trade with Africa can be attributed to the fact that it has stepped up its economic diplomacy. In the last couple of years, Iran has increased number of commercial delegations to Africa, it organized many exhibitions and held several Joint Economic Commission meetings. Iran has also established a number of business centers across Africa in 2023, two Iranian trade centers are being established in Uganda and Tanzania and a Technology House in Kenya. Iranian Trade Promotion Organization has also set up an African Affairs General Bureau in Tehran. According to the Director General of Iran’s Trade Promotion Organization, “In a three-year plan we will increase Iran’s exports to Africa by 1.1 billion dollars.” [vii]Besides, Iran has also invested in the cluster of knowledge-based companies which seek to commercialize research in medicines, food supply chain optimization, agricultural mechanization and crop yield maximization[viii]. States like Democratic Republic of Congo has invited many Iranian Knowledge based companies to invest in Kinshasa.
Focus on East Africa
Iran has sought to leverage opportunities by strengthening ties with East African States in geopolitical, economic and cultural domain. East Africa is extremely significant for Iran due to its strategic location, which is close to Bab- al- Mandab Strait and Gulf of Aden[ix]. This provides Iran with the ability to control transport through the main international maritime and shipping lanes. During his three-nation trip to the East African States of Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe, Iranian President Raisi described the visit as a new turning point to promote economic diplomacy. All the three countries, Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe are suffering from economic debt. They have signed 21 agreements with Iran. They consider Iran as the critical strategic partner and innovation partner. Iran has signed five Memoranda of Understanding with Kenya in the field of fisheries, animal health, livestock production, information technology and investment promotion. Iran has proposed to establish a manufacturing plant for Iranian vehicles in Mombasa, Kenya’s port city. Iran will be supporting Uganda through energy projects through sharing of knowledge and by funding. This decision has come at a time when European states and other international organizations are pressurizing Uganda to stop the construction of oil refinery citing the environmental hazards. Iran has massively invested in the agricultural sectors of Uganda and Zimbabwe[x]. Geopolitically, these three states have been of great significance to Iran as they have held seats in the important multilateral institutions such as the United Nations Security Council, UN General Assembly and the International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Directors. Time and again they have been able to subdue key votes, resolutions and sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program and human rights records[xi].
Besides strengthening trade relations with these three states, President Raisi indicated that his idea was to build new alliances in order to exert influence against the growing diplomatic pressure on Iran from the West. Iran has criticized the West for exploiting African natural resources and it has positioned itself as a true partner in Africa’s development. President Raisi maintains that the West has plundered Africa’s wealth in the past claiming that they have maintained their colonial spirit and have only changed their methods. Many Institutions of both Uganda and Zimbabwe have been targeted by US sanctions for human right abuses, corruption, election related violence and homosexuality legislations. During a recent meeting with Burkina Faso’s Foreign Minister Olivia Rouamba, President Raisi praised African countries resistance to the colonial powers as a sign of vigilance and awakening.[xii].
Enhancing Ties with West Africa
Iran has also been focusing on enhancing ties with West Africa. It is to be noted that on March, 6, 2023, Iran convened its first Iran-West Africa Economic Summit. The purpose of this Summit was to develop economic cooperation between Iran and the West African states in the field of energy, transportation, agriculture, mining and technical engineering. During the Summit, President Raisi emphasized upon Iran’s readiness to develop a comprehensive partnership with the West African States. According to the Raisi administration, there is a need to focus upon the fields of cooperation and exchange of experiences between Iran and West Africa.[xiii]. Iran’s capabilities in technology and knowledge-based industry in areas such as the defense and the health sector could be a major advantage in expanding its relations with West Africa. During the Summit Iran and West African states inked contracts worth one billion dollars in sectors such as automobiles, construction of heavy ships, medical equipment, etc. Iran also proposed for the creation of a Joint Bank with an objective of developing comprehensive economic partnership with the West African states. According to an official statement made by Iranian Trade and Industry Minister Reza Fatemi Amnin, “Iran has a realistic understanding of the needs of west Africa and its serious determination to enhance its ties particularly in economic and commercial sectors.”[xiv]
Iran’s Relations with Africa in Comparison with regional stakeholders
Though Iran-Africa partnership under President Raisi has been growing, Iran has limited diplomatic presence in the region in comparison to that of its neighbors, such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey. While Iran has about 20 embassies in Africa, Turkey has 44 embassies and Saudi Arabia has 35 embassies in Africa. For Iran, the strategic playing field is far more complex in Africa, as its regional counterparts such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia have developed extensive economic and security partnerships across the African continent[xv]. At present, Turkey-Africa trade volume has reached up to 34.5 billion and Saudi Arabia – Africa trade has reached up to 37.5 billion dollars, while Iran’s trade with African countries is about 1.8 billion dollars in 2023.[xvi] However, African flexibility to develop closer ties with Iran has increased in the recent months after the signing of diplomatic agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia and ceasefire in Yemen.[xvii]
Iran’s renewed engagement with Africa under President Raisi’s leadership is likely to be successful, as Iran can benefit by expanding trade with Africa, which along with enhancing economic ties with the African states, serves as a key strategy to safeguard Iran’s economy from the negative impact of the US sanctions. Thus, President Raisi’s administration is likely to continue with its current approach and focus more on developing extensive economic and political partnerships with the African states in an effort to counter its isolation by the West.
*Dr. Gauri Narain Mathur, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[i] Arman Sidhu. ‘A New Beginning in Iran-Africa Relations’. Geopolitical Monitor. 26 July 2023. https://www.geopoliticalmonitor.com/a-new-beginning-in-iran-africa-relations/
[ii] Amin Naeni. ‘Iran’s Renewed Africa’s Policy: Raisi’s Ambition and the perception of the Western Decline’. Middle East Institute. 31 July 2022. https://www.mei.edu/publications/irans-renewed-africa-policy-raisis-ambition-and-perception-western-decline
[iii] Arman Sidhu. ‘A New Beginning in Iran-Africa Relations’. Geopolitical Monitor. 26 July 2023. https://www.geopoliticalmonitor.com/a-new-beginning-in-iran-africa-relations/
[iv] Eric Lob. ‘Iran- Africa Relations Under Raisi: Salvaging with the Continent’ Middle East Institute. 11 April 2022. https://www.mei.edu/publications/iran-africa-relations-under-raisi-salvaging-ties-continent
[v] ‘Iran Looks to East Africa for More Friends’. The Soufan Center. 18 July 2023. https://thesoufancenter.org/intelbrief-2023-july-18/
[vi] ‘1st Iran West Africa Economic Summit Convenes in Tehran’. Financial Tribune. 10 March 2023. https://www.financialtribune.com/articles/domestic-economy/117421/1st-iran-west-africa-economic-summit-convenes-in-tehran.
[vii] Amin Naeni. ‘Iran’s Renewed Africa’s Policy: Raisi’s Ambition and the perception of the Western Decline’. Middle East Institute. 31 July 2022. https://www.mei.edu/publications/irans-renewed-africa-policy-raisis-ambition-and-perception-western-decline
[ix] ‘ Iranian Activities in East Africa’. The Meir Amit Terrorism and Information Center. 8 May 2023. https://www.terrorism-info.org.il/app/uploads/2023/05/E_087_23.pdf
[x] Eric Lob. ‘ Raisi goes to Africa in Search of Allies for Iran’. The Stimson Organization. 26 July 2023. https://www.stimson.org/2023/raisi-goes-to-africa-in-search-of-allies-for-iran/
[xii] ‘ Iran Hails African Countries’ Resistance to Colonialism’ Voice of Africa. 4 September 2023. https://www.voanews.com/a/iran-hails-african-countries-resistance-to-colonialism-/7254610.html
[xiii] Christopher Burke. ‘Iran’s Engagement with Africa’. The Independent. 9 August 2023. https://www.independent.co.ug/irans-engagement-with-africa/
[xiv] Amin Naeni. ‘Iran’s Renewed Africa’s Policy: Raisi’s Ambition and the perception of the Western Decline’. Middle East Institute. 31 July 2022. https://www.mei.edu/publications/irans-renewed-africa-policy-raisis-ambition-and-perception-western-decline
[xv] Dr. Jacques Neriah. ‘Is Iran Retuning Its Relations with the African Continent’. Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. 20 July 2023. https://jcpa.org/is-iran-retuning-its-relations-with-the-african-continent/
[xvi] Mira Demirdirek and Hamid Talebian. Bolstering the Bromances: Tukey’s and Iran’s Tightening Ties with Africa’. German Institute for Global and Area Studies. 2022. https://www.giga-hamburg.de/en/publications/giga-focus/bolstering-the-bromances-turkey-s-and-iran-s-tightening-ties-with-africa
[xvii] Eric Lob. ‘ Raisi goes to Africa in Search of Allies for Iran’. The Stimson Organization. 26 July 2023. https://www.stimson.org/2023/raisi-goes-to-africa-in-search-of-allies-for-iran/