Editor's Note: Jason Warner is a Ph.D. student in African Studies and Government at Harvard University.
By Jason Warner - Special to CNN
The recent accusation that Iran was behind a plot to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States thrust that mercurial nation, home of the Persian leopard, back into the international spotlight. While the Beltway is rallying behind the Obama administration’s commitment to isolate Iran anew, we risk overlooking that country’s growing relationship with Africa.
In a New York speech in 2007, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad trumpeted to the world that there were “no limits to the expansion of [Iran’s] ties with African countries.” Since his inauguration in 2005, Iran has actively been pursuing an ambitious agenda of deepening such “limitless” ties with African governments.
Driving Iran’s Africa push is its need to buoy its image in the face of international isolation caused by its nuclear program. Censured by the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2006 and 2007, Iran has viewed African states – which, like itself, find great relevance in the rhetoric of Global South solidarity – as in-built allies against a presumed imperial West that seeks to keep rising developing world powers at bay. For their part, African states such as Eritrea and Comoros, amongst others, have been willing to support Iran’s right to nuclear development for peaceful purposes. Africa also figures into Iran’s nuclear calculus as a source point for uranium, which Iran has been trying to procure from countries such as Niger, Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia.
Though Iran’s recent charm offensive has been continent-wide, its primary ally in Africa has historically been Sudan. Iran’s engagement with Khartoum predates the Ahmadinejad presidency to 1989, when Iran helped to finance the coup that ultimately installed Sudan’s current president, Omar al-Bashir, into power. Since then, Sudan has been Iran’s staunchest ally, receiving substantial military, economic and political aid, and serving as the so-called “pivot” in Iran’s relationship with Africa. Tehran has more recently been targeting improved relations with other African states in the Horn of Africa – notably Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia – whose proximities to the Gulf of Aden make them attractive to an Iran ever preoccupied with an adversarial Israel.
The rest of the continent has not been forgotten; Iran’s strategies to garner other African allies have been multifaceted, encompassing economic, cultural and political carrots. Iranian oil offers to Kenya and South Africa have been matched with assistance in oil refining to Eritrea and Uganda. Culturally, Iran has emphasized its Muslim similarities with Senegal, Nigeria, Mali, Niger, and Tanzania. Politically, Iran uses Global South consortia – the G-77 at the United Nations, the nonaligned movement and its observer status in the African Union – as soapboxes from which to espouse its newfound commitment to Africa.
Yet, as the age old adage predicts, the Persian leopard appears unable to change its spots: Iran’s tendency towards a duplicitous and internally confused foreign policy has led African states to approach it with caution. Tehran has been accused of funding the Somalia-based Al-Shabaab rebel group, responsible not only for frequent attacks in that country, but also for the so-called World Cup bombings in Uganda in July 2010 that killed 74. Iran’s efforts to recruit supporters for Hezbollah in places like northern Nigeria have likewise been met with opposition. More broadly, African states are also wary of Iran’s well-noted foreign policy “credibility gap,” which one journalist highlighted by noting that almost two dozen African states have threatened to cut off relations with Iran after the latter failed to follow-through on promised investments.
Most notable amongst Iran’s diplomatic snafus, however, occurred in November 2010 as inspectors in a Lagos, Nigeria port discovered a caché of weapons – rocket launchers, rocket-propelled grenades, and assault rifles – labeled as “construction materials” originating from Iran. Abuja assumed that the secret arms shipment was intended for one of the local militias in the country: MEND in the southeast or Boko Haram in the north. Iran demurred, insisting that they were for “another West African country,” eventually revealed to be Gambia. This disclosure infuriated Senegal, which believed Gambia to be funding rebels in Senegal’s neighboring secessionist-minded Casamance region. Indignant, Senegal broke off ties with Iran, as did Gambia.
These issues notwithstanding, Iran’s attempts to win African friends have been frustrated by their recognition of Tehran’s marginal status among their other potential international allies. The United States’ visibility on the continent remains strong with its ramped up security presence to fight Islamic extremism in both the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, while France and Britain remain postcolonial bulwarks. Iran’s attempts at establishing a foothold though are most likely to be frustrated by China’s presence, which has grown so exponentially in Africa since the early 2000s that many argue that Zambia’s recent presidential elections were a referendum on the Chinese presence there. Thus while some of Africa’s more cantankerous states – Sudan, Eritrea and Zimbabwe, for instance – are quick to engage Iran, most others view Tehran as an untrustworthy and ultimately second-rate ally when compared to alternatives.
Indeed, for the Persian leopard, its inability to break bad habits means that there are perhaps more limits to the extent of Iranian-African friendship than even an increasingly isolated Ahmadinejad would care to admit.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Jason Warner.