How Africa plays into Iran’s nuclear ambitions
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad shakes hands with his Zimbabwean counterpart Robert Mugabe in Tehran on November 20, 2006. (Getty Images)
January 17th, 2012
12:58 PM ET

How Africa plays into Iran’s nuclear ambitions

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.

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Topics: Africa • Iran

soundoff (32 Responses)
  1. Hahahahahahahahahahaha

    How much tissue does it take to blow those 2 noses? Wow!!!!!! Hahahahahahahahahaha.

    January 17, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
  2. j. von hettlingen

    South Africa had covert collaboration with Israel in nuclear programs in the seventies, which was camouflaged by the well known "collaboration between these countries on conventional arms". South Africa was known to have received technical assistance from Israel on its weapon program, in exchange for supplying Israel with 300 tons of uranium. South Africa shared enrichment expertise with Iran too.

    January 17, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
    • j. von hettlingen

      Most people in Africa have an ambivalent feelings towards their colonial past. Their vast natural resources become a curse and spark conflicts. Their governments are often autocratic regimes vacillate from pro- to anti-West. Iran and China take advantage of the pariah status of these nations to make friends with them and benefit themselves.

      January 18, 2012 at 5:14 am |
      • Jaws7

        When the West makes investments in these countries it is considered a good thing. When China and Iran
        invests in these countries it is not. Interesting how things work. China is supposed to be a good country to
        do business with. It gives better deals and treats these countries in a more business like manner and stays
        out of their politics.

        January 23, 2012 at 11:49 pm |

    It is too early and unprofessional to put a weight on Africa. The West, Central and South-Africa are still they are holding their breath from their past Colonial and Slavery times. Still it is the nightmare for them. Slavery and opened Colonialisms doors are still wide opened in Africa. Suddenly, it will happened by Chinese and their collaborators. But, we don't know where. China has more Self-interests in African natural Resources.

    Can Iran and other Countries could take anything they want from Africa's natural resources? Sure! Africans need Money and there are no Minimum or Maximum Security for its resources, since its leaders can be easily Manipulated by anyone who have Money.

    Color coded Security level never been exercised in Africa.

    January 17, 2012 at 6:47 pm |
  4. Daniel

    "...some of Africa’s more prodigal states like Isaias Afiwerki’s Eritrea are more supportive of an Iranian nuclear weapon."

    Jason, you are a PhD student & I guess you will have to stay as a student for the next 10 years before you graduate & know what you are talking about.
    I'm not sure from which article you copied this part of your article, but what I want you to do next time is to know & understand what you're copying because neither you nor a thousand others such as you have the right to label my country, Eritrea, as a 'prodigal state' unless you can prove it. I dare you also to prove that our leader, Isaias Afewerki has ever been supportive of Iranian nuclear 'weapon'.
    If you or anyone else can prove any of the above, email me at
    I will also be more than happy to clear your doubts or questions about Eritrea & let you know what you don't know.

    January 17, 2012 at 7:33 pm |
  5. Benedict

    It's not surprising that certian African nations will support Iran in it's bid to attain nuclear status since Iran has financial incentives that would encourage such line of thought. However,if these nations hope to really gain anything out of Iran,they should look at what has been happening with Iran as regards to South America. Ahmedinejad has visited Venezuela and Leftist-leaning countries to shore up it's ally base in order to have a friends that see Iran's point pf view with promises of investment that hasn't come to fruitation.Now,Iran is threating to close the Strait of Homuz which is the corridor of a fifth of world oil supply. This action while attempting to diffuse the US sanctions on the Iranian ecnomy,it has impacted negatively on Africans who export crude to the rest of the world. Now,how do the supporters of Iran have to say about a nation whose willing to use the threat of military force against it's enemy which will in turn affect those very same allies?"

    January 18, 2012 at 5:05 am |
    • Jaws7

      I do not follow your logic. Closing the Straits of Hormuz would not negatively effect the African nations
      that export oil. It would increase the price of oil and they would benefit. As for investments in Venezuela,
      it is an oil rich country that does not have a need for investments from Iran.

      January 23, 2012 at 11:45 pm |
  6. why

    يا أبناء شعبنا المجاهد
    يا أبناء امتنا العربية المجيدة
    تحل علينا اليوم الذكرى الحادية والعشرون لمنازلة ام المعارك الخالدة والتي انبثقت لمجابهة العدوان الثلاثيني الغاشم على العراق فجر السابع عشر من كانون الثاني عام 1991 ، حيث استهدفوا العراق بطائراتهم وصواريخهم وقنابلهم الذكية والغبية العمياء وأعلنوا بالصلف كله والعنجهية كلها بأنهم يشنون ما أسموه القصف التمهيدي في تصرف احمق واستغباء فريد الطراز تندر منه أبسط العارفين في الشؤون العسكرية والعلم العسكري بأن القصف التمهيدي لا يمتد الا لساعات او بعض يوم .

    في حين ان قصفهم التمهيدي الهمجي ذاك تواصل اثنين وأربعين يوما فطال البنى التحتية والاقتصادية كلها والبنى الارتكازية والمصانع والمعامل ومنها معامل حليب الاطفال والمزارع والمدارس ودور العبادة وملجأ العامرية الذي راح ضحيته اكثر من 400 شهيد وظل معلما خالداً يحكي سفر الصمود والفداء العراقي بوجه العدوان الثلاثيني الغاشم الذي استهدف فيما استهدف سوق الفلوجة وجسر الناصرية بل وحتى بيوت الشعر في بوادي وصحارى العراق الشاسعة ذلك كله سبقه ورافقه واستمر بعده الحصار الجائر على أمتداد ثلاثة عشر عاما .

    وقد كان لصمود الجيش العراقي الباسل دوره المشهود في المعركة البرية التي لم يشنها المعتدون الا في الرابع والعشرين من شباط عام 1991 والتي لم تستمر الا ثلاثة ايام ودارت فيها اكبر معارك الدبابات والتي الحق فيها مقاتلو جيشنا الباسل افدح الخسائر بالجيش الاميركي المعتدي ضمن هجوم ثمانية وعشرين جيشاً وثلاثة وثلاثين دولةً مما أرغم المجرم بوش الاب على اتخاذ قرار وقف أطلاق النار من جانب واحد ، وبذلك توقف العدوان الغاشم وبدأت صفحة الخيانة والغدر من قبل النظام الايراني وعملائه والتي أستهدفوا فيها مقاتلو جيشنا الباسل ومناضلو البعث وسرقوا الحبوب المخصصة للبطاقة التموينية في السايلوات وأحرقوا دوائر الدولة وسجلات النفوس والعقاري والطابو ودوائر الماء والكهرباء والجوازات وغيرها في عملية خيانية مؤازرة وتابعة للعدوان الثلاثيني الغاشم .

    ولقد شن مجاهدو البعث والجيش الباسل وأبناء شعبنا البطل الهجوم المقابل لإعادة البناء والاعمار فأعادوا الكهرباء والماء والمواصلات والاتصالات في مدة لا تتجاوز الشهور الثلاثة بإرادة وطنية صلبة وبموارد وطنية صرفة ، فيما تواصل صمود العراقيين الاباة بوجه الحصار الجائر وعدوانات الرجعة الخائبة مما حدا بالحلف الاميركي الصهيوني الفارسي لشن هجومه الغادر في العشرين من اذار عام 2003 واحتلال العراق في التاسع من نيسان من العام ذاته .

    ولقد واجه مجاهدو البعث والمقاومة وفرسان الجيش العراقي الباسل الاحتلال منذ يومه الاول في هجوم مقابل بعيد المدى مستثمرين دروس منازلة أم المعارك الخالدة البليغة في رد الصاع صاعات للمحتلين الاوباش وحلفائهم الاشرار وعملائهم الاخساء .

    يا أبناء شعبنا المقدام
    ايها الغيارى من أبناء الامة وأحرار العالم
    لقد تواصلت العمليات الجهادية الباسلة لمجاهدي البعث وفصائل المقاومة الوطنية والقومية والاسلامية كلها حتى ألحقوا الهزيمة المنكرة بالمحتلين الاميركان وطردوهم شر طردة من ارض العراق الطاهرة والتي توجت بعيد العراق الخالد ليلة الحادي والثلاثين من كانون الاول عام 2011 بهروب آخر جندي اميركي محتل ، والذي كان يوم خزي وعار وشنار للمحتلين الاميركان وحلفائهم الصهاينة والفرس وعملائهم المالكي وشلته الخسيسة والذين أرادوا سرقة نصر البعث والمقاومة بطرد المحتلين عبر احتفالاتهم الشكلية البائسة لتنفيذ الدور الموكول لهم من قبل أسيادهم المحتلين المهزومين ، فسارع العميل المالكي الى تصفية حساباته مع شركائه في العملية السياسية المخابراتية بأصدار مذكرات الاعتقال وسحب الثقة وما الى ذلك من ممارسات بائسة تفضح سعيه المحموم للتسلط والانفراد ونهب ثروة العراق وقمع أبنائه البررة ، فواصل حملة الاعتقالات الظالمة ضد مجاهدي البعث وضباط وطياري وضباط صف جيشنا الباسل والذين لقنوا جلاوزته دروسا في الصمود والاباء والكرامة والعزة الوطنية والقومية .

    واليوم يواصلون جهادهم الملحمي مع أبناء شعبهم لتقويض العملية السياسية المتهاوية مستلهمين الدروس الجهادية البليغة للذكرى الحادية والعشرين لمنازلة أم المعارك الخالدة غير آبهين بمناورات العميل المالكي ودعوات اطراف العملية السياسية المنهارة لعقد المؤتمرات البائسة التي لن تقوى على حمايتها من السقوط الحتمي والانهيار المريع .

    وسيمضي مجاهدو البعث والمقاومة الى امام على طريق التحرير الكامل والشامل والعميق والاستقلال التام والناجز لبناء العراق الحر التعددي الديمقراطي المستقل والمساهم بفاعلية في مسيرة النضال القومي للامة العربية واعلاء صرح الحضارة الانسانية

    January 18, 2012 at 9:40 am |
  7. Zimbabwean

    Its not a sin to be friends with Iran. Its not for the West to decide for African countries who should be our friends. British colonialism resulted in the deaths of over 300 000 Zimbabweans. American imperialism cost Angola and Namibia over 1million deaths during the Angolan war. Zimbabwe is under illegal Western sanctions right now because we TOOK back (not BUY back)the land Whites had stolen from us in the name of British colonialism. Is it any wonder that so many African countries have become good friends with China,Brasil, India, Russia and yes, Iran.

    January 18, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • George Patton

      Yes Zimbabwean, I fully agree with you. Neither we Americans nor our British henchmen have changed over the past 150 years. Today we Americans are playing the role of the world's top bullies and that's just plain wrong!!!

      January 18, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
  8. Bobby

    Iran is being sanctioned with the laws they (UNSC) created, using an international group that they control, for attemtping to posses weapons that they already posses...

    Open your eyes people...

    January 18, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  9. Goodguy1

    Is there Yellow Cake there? If we are to have a war we need evidence of Yellow Cake whether real or imaginary. Foreign witnesses testified that they saw yellow cake in Africa being delivered covertly to Iraqis, before the lead up to Iraq. They stated it was labeled: Made by Betty Crocker.

    January 18, 2012 at 6:33 pm |
  10. lara

    Seriously! African studies in Harvard and you refer to the sovereign countries of the African continent as states! You definitely did not get into the program on merit, probably got bought in by your parents. Please next time you want to refer to other peoples' countries and talk so authoritatively do your homework!

    January 18, 2012 at 9:11 pm |
    • louisxiv

      I have to agree with you, Lara!! I have always detested it when people refer to my sovereign country as a 'state', forgetting that 'l'Etat c'est moi', that I'm the state. Such haughty behaviour should not be tolerated in this day and age. Lara, you will be pleased to hear that as a retaliatory measure I've dispatched an army to lay siege to Harvard. Upon capture, Mr Warner is to be quartered. Louis XIV, King of France and Navarre

      January 19, 2012 at 9:28 am |
    • Robespierre

      sounds like somebody's jealous. like they didn't get into Harvard...

      January 19, 2012 at 10:08 am |
    • I've had coffee, therefore IPE

      Lara, you have no excuse for such pitiful responses now that Wikipedia is back up. Please educate yourself about the etymological history of the term "state" before speaking so authoritatively.

      January 19, 2012 at 10:45 am |
      • Robespierre

        sorry you all have it wrong:
        I think that's the way that Mr. Warner intended to use the word 'state' in his article.

        January 19, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • BC_Knowledge

      Not all people that get into Harvard have to pay for it. Get past your own arrogance and try to realize that he is not saying anything negative by referring to your Country as a State. It is a positive term. Quit being a hater and read his article for what it is, enlightening.

      January 19, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
  11. Robespierre

    but I do agree that African countries aren't states. They're made up of all three states: solid, liquid, and gas.

    January 19, 2012 at 10:13 am |


    January 22, 2012 at 12:53 am |
  13. Chelle

    Lara, as the sister of the fellow who wrote this article, I can assure you that his parents have in no way "bought" his acceptance into Harvard University. We are from a middle-class background and Mr. Warner is at Harvard because of his extreme passion and concern for African states (which, I will clarify that "states" in this context refers correctly to countries situated within the African continent. Fair enough, Lara?) .... Your comment comes from a place of ignorance and I would kindly ask that you also do your homework before making such generalizations about peoples' supposed financial privilege.

    January 23, 2012 at 5:32 am |

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