Editor's Note: Jason Warner is a Ph.D. student in African Studies and Government at Harvard University.
By Jason Warner – Special to CNN
Though often overlooked, Africa plays a critical role in Iran’s quest to become a nuclear state.
Iran’s first uranium shipment came in the 1970s from a then nuclear South Africa, and as late as 1997 during Nelson Mandela’s administration, South Africa was purportedly in talks to share its enrichment expertise with Iran, an allegation that Pretoria has refuted. Since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s 2005 election, however, Iran has viewed Africa as imperative for its nuclear program for three primary purposes: uranium, diplomatic support, and geostrategic protection.
Zimbabwe, one of Iran’s most reliable African allies and home to some 450,000 tons of uranium ore, signed a 2009 memorandum of understanding with Iran granting the latter exclusive mining rights to all “strategic” Zimbabwean minerals - including uranium - in return for long-term fuel assistance. Again in 2011, Iran’s foreign minister met with a representative of Zimbabwe’s mining agency to “resume negotiations ... for the benefit of Iran’s uranium procurement plan.”
Other Iranian attempts at getting to Africa’s uranium have been more fraught. Controversially, the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of Somalia in 2006 accused Iran of providing a range of weapons to the insurgent Islamic Courts Union (ICU) so as to be allowed access to certain Somali uranium deposits. A 2009 United Nations investigation confirmed that Iran had supplied the rebel group with military assistanceand also asserted that Iran might have sought to collaborate with Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, a U.S.-designated terrorist and radical Islamist, so as to explore the possibility of purchasing uranium from his hometown of Dhusa Mareb.
Iran’s African uranium pursuits were roiled in controversy again in 2006, when officials in Tanzania uncovered a secret shipment of uranium originating from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)’s Lumbashi mines en route to Iran. In 2007, the Commissioner General of the DRC’s atomic agency was accused of smuggling uranium out of the country to sell to Tehran.Thwarted again: Tehran’s pursuit of the ore from Niger, the world’s sixth-largest uranium producer, was derailed when that country’s president, Mamadou Tandja, was ousted in a coup d’état in February 2010.
While Iran views Africa as a critical market for uranium, as concerns its nuclear program, it more importantly sees the continent as a do-or-die ally both diplomatically and geostrategically.
Diplomatically, Iran views Africa’s 54 states - more than one-quarter of the entire UN General Assembly - as imperative allies in global fora critical of its nuclear program. An international pariah himself, Ahmadinejad is constantly engaged in an unending search for friends. Thus when talking to African states, Iran has gone to great lengths to paint the United Nations and its subsidiary International Atomic Energy Agency as sycophantic lackeys of an imperial West of which many African governments and civil societies are still wary. Instead, Iran says, its nuclear program operates exclusively for peaceful purposes, and international furor has been caused more by Western realpolitik bullying than any actual threat that its program might present.
In response to these peace-promising overtures, African states broadly fall into two camps. While many of the continent’s more internationally visible states such as Nigeria and South Africa have stated bluntly that they do not want Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon (though they do support its right to access peaceful nuclear technology), some of Africa’s more prodigal states like Isaias Afiwerki’s Eritrea are more supportive of an Iranian nuclear weapon. As Afiwerki questioned, “If there are nuclear dangers and problems, why they cannot be solved [sic] within the region, among the countries which feel the danger…if Iran has such intentions?”
But as its Strait of Hormuz threats underline, when it comes to the Iranian nuclear program, geospatial control is arguably more important than ideological allies. Unsurprisingly then, African states’ greater instrumental value for Tehran are as friendly strategic buffers in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden that can protect Iran in the event of an invasion to halt its nuclear activities. To win African allies, Iran has deepened its naval cooperation with strategic littoral African states Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia, and Sudan.
Since 2009 it has also begun to help patrol the beleaguered Gulf of Aden against Somali piracy alongside the United States, China, and India. Though to be sure, its seeming collaboration with so many potential adversaries is more the mark of a defiantly aspirant regional hegemon than of an increasingly cooperative but historically misunderstood outcast.
For most, keeping the Strait of Hormuz open remains a primarily economic matter. Nevertheless, ignoring Africa’s potential role in abetting the larger underlying issue of the emergence of a nuclear weapon-wielding Iran could ultimately prove far more costly than any barrel of oil could ever be.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Jason Warner.