Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi recently visited three African nations: Kenya, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. The significance of this visit is not only that it was Raisi’s first tour of Africa but also that it marks the first by an Iranian president in over a decade. So, what are the dimensions of this visit? And how can it be viewed in light of international geopolitical developments and recent economic crises?
The focus on East Africa
Iran's relations with Africa can be traced back to Persia’s connection with Africa and are based on religion, ideology and collaborations to tackle common issues. During the Cold War, the Islamic republic supported decolonisation efforts across the continent, forging a post-colonial identity. Iranian oil earnings helped Tehran increase its outreach to Sub-Saharan Africa based on an "anti-West" position, religious and cultural orientations, and economic, political and geopolitical objectives. (1)
Another factor influencing Iran's relations with Africa are periods when the Islamic Republic adopted a disruptive policy to alter a political status quo deemed hostile to its survival, such as the period of the Shah and containment (between 1953 and 1979), the period between 1980 and 2001 when the country was more diplomatic in its approach, the period between 2002 and 2010 period when it was seeking to escape international isolation, and the period between 2011 and 2018, during the diplomatic crisis between Saudi Arabia and Iran, when Tehran needed more international allies and partners. (2)
It is worth noting that during former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's tenure (2005–2013), which spanned two periods of Iranian relations with Africa, Ahmadinejad's first foreign trip was to attend an African Union (AU) summit in the Gambia. (3) During these periods, he focused more on ideological strategies, leveraging religious ties with Shia communities on the continent, and anti-Western sentiment. This strategy, and the efforts to disseminate Shia ideology further, had an impact on its economic and political connections with Africa.
Despite the historical and long periods of Iran's relationship with Africa, the Islamic Republic's footprint on the continent remains tiny, and its outreach is unstable since many think Iran has failed to form meaningful alliances with African countries. Nonetheless, Africa has been consistently promoted by Iranian leaders as a viable option to the deterioration of relations with the European Union and the termination of diplomatic relations with the United States. As a result, Raisi's recent visit to the continent with a group that included the country's foreign minister and business leaders might be a further push for its re-engagement with the continent. (4)
In fact, the interest that Raisi has attached to his country's relations with Africa can be traced back to 2021. Shortly after his inauguration, he declared: "In the new Iranian government, all our capabilities will be devoted to deepening cooperation with African countries." (5) Also, during his meetings with the speaker of Guinea-Bissau's National Assembly, Cipriano Cassamá, in August 2021 (6) and the Togolese foreign minister, Robert Dussey, in January 2022, (7) he acknowledged Africa's natural and human resources and expressed Iran’s interest in developing mutually beneficial relations with African countries. In February 2022, Raisi also met with his Mozambican counterpart, Filipe Nyusi, and indicated his willingness to strengthen economic and commercial relations with Mozambique and other African nations. (8)
Similarly, on 7 March 2023, Tehran hosted its first Economic Cooperation Summit with West African nations. (9) However, the latest visit, portrayed as a "new turning point" by the Iranian foreign ministry’s spokesperson, reveals that, for the time being, East and Southern Africa might be the main Iranian focus for Africa. (10) The bilateral talks, memoranda of understanding (MOUs) and increased involvement with Uganda, Kenya and Zimbabwe are notable examples of this.
Focusing on East Africa in its new strategy should be considered a calculated comeback for Iran, as there is a millennial history of Persian navigators and merchants interacting with the nations and peoples of East Africa, and Shiites began migrating in greater numbers to the region in the 1840s, becoming merchants and traders along the coast. (11) Strategic nations like Kenya and Uganda can potentially serve as entry points for other Iranian approaches in the region. Today, the Islamic Culture and Relations Organization (ICRO) is regarded as one of the most important Iranian organisations in East Africa, with multiple Shiite centres spread across the continent. Ismaili (a sub-sect of Shia) communities can be found in many other countries in the region, including Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Madagascar, Burundi and Rwanda. (12)
Another point is the intense interest in the coasts of the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa, as well as the ongoing quest for precious African mineral resources such as uranium. Strengthening ties with Kenya means gaining the support of East Africa's economic powerhouse, and gaining the support of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and the Zimbabwean government may ease access to mineral resources access, garner political support, and provide a smooth passage in regional and continental blocs.
A "new beginning" amid Western sanctions
President Raisi’s visit to Africa, described by Iran as a "new beginning (13), came amid Western sanctions on Iran, which many believe are affecting the country. (14) In 2018, former US President Donald Trump ditched the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and re-imposed sanctions on Tehran. (15) In addition, the Islamic Republic is also accused of supporting Russia and sending weapons to Moscow for the war on Ukraine (16), which has alienated Tehran from the support of potential Western partners.
This means that it is imperative for Tehran to look for different alternatives, like joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) that includes Russia, China and India, (17) forging new alliances with new potential partners in the global South, as demonstrated by Raisi’s visits to Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, (18) and Indonesia (19), while also amending its relationships with some of its regional rivals and Arab powerhouses, such as Saudi Arabia and Algeria.
Given African opposition to some of the Western sanctions and the growing anti-West sentiment, Iran's chances of avoiding Western sanctions through improved diplomatic connections in Africa appear to be easy. In actuality, several African politicians and leaders openly support Iran or criticise the sanctions. For instance, during their meetings with Raisi, both Cassamá and Dussey criticised and expressed opposition to the U.S. sanctions on Iran, particularly in light of the fact that sanctions against other nations like Zimbabwe, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and Mali are also in place.
Also, different competitors are motivated to go to Africa for support as a result of the recent UN voting patterns on the Ukraine crisis, which largely favoured Russia. Iran is comparable to China, Russia and the United States in this regard, since all three countries need African support to gain voting power in international organisations and blocs. Gaining the support of any African country and strengthening relationships with it also means benefiting from its presence in any international institution. This was illustrated recently when Iran requested South Africa's assistance to expedite its membership in BRICS, (20) a group of five nations that also includes Brazil, Russia, India and China.
African nuclear programmes
Iran’s new engagement with Africa will shore up once more the discussions about nuclear programmes, as many African countries are considering different projects in this regard. There are indications that at least seven African nations are developing nuclear power facilities at various levels, with the majority targeting the period between 2030 and 2031 as the start date. (21) One of these is Kenya, which intends to use nuclear power to generate electricity and signed an MOU on strategic civil nuclear cooperation with the United States last year. (22) Uganda is working to build a nuclear power plant that officials predict will start producing electricity by the year 2031. The facility, which is being built with the technical assistance of the China National Nuclear Corporation, would make use of Uganda's significant uranium reserves. (23)
Many African leaders have been vocal about their support of Iran’s nuclear programmes. For example, Museveni, a U.S. ally on security matters, repeatedly voiced support for Iran. In 2010, during a visit by Ahmadinejad, Museveni declared that all sovereign countries had a right to pursue peaceful nuclear projects, even though he had supported the removal of all nuclear arsenals. (24). Also, in 2019, South Africa opposed the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal and stressed that “South Africa has always believed in diplomacy and the peaceful resolution of conflicts as a matter of principle. We consider the JCPOA a significant achievement in this regard.” (25)
However, many believe that, despite the promise and potential of Iran's new engagements with the three African countries visited by the president and delegation of the Islamic Republic, there are still obstacles due to the low volume of markets in the targeted African countries in comparison to others, such as Nigeria or Ethiopia.
Building on common political views
Political rhetoric is one of the methods employed by global rivals to persuade or alienate African states. Many Western countries emphasise the need for democratic principles and human rights; Russia emphasises the Soviet Union's support for African liberation; and China relies on the notion of not prioritising any political ideology or the fact that it has no colonial legacy in Africa and is interested in win-win cooperation and development-oriented strategies.
Iran has a similar strategy in several African countries, prioritising Shia ideology and common political views on global affairs. Because many Salafi communities in African countries are opposed to their countries' close relationship with Iran, it is clear that Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe were chosen due to their positions on global affairs, allowing for the use of common political views as catalysts for new engagement, especially since Ugandan and Zimbabwean leaders are among the African officials that oppose the West and whose political voices are in line with that of Iran.
In his meeting with Cassamá in August 2021, Raisi delivered a speech similar to that made by Russia in regards to Africa, condemning what he called the West's exploitation of the continent's resources and claiming that Iran served as a “friend and real partner” in helping Africans achieve welfare, development, independence, and progress. (26)
Furthermore, the political undertone during a Zimbabwean ministerial delegation's visit to Tehran earlier this year to strengthen ties in areas such as petroleum commerce. In fact, Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa told hundreds of people welcoming the Iranian president on his most recent visit to the country, "When you see him, you see me." He adds, “When we went to battle [for Zimbabwe's independence struggle from Britain], Iran was our buddy. I'm glad you came to express your unity.” (27).
However, some African countries remain sceptical of Iran's ideology in terms of its political views; and in some African Muslim communities, Iran is viewed as a dubious actor as a result of its efforts to export its preferred version of political Islam, making said communities and their local governments suspicious of Tehran's intentions and hesitant to embrace it as a trusted partner. The case of Ibrahim Zakzaky (28) and his group, the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, which was outlawed by the Nigerian government in 2019 owing to its “terrorist” and “illegal” activity, is an example of this. (29)
Alongside those of China and Russia, Iran's increasing presence might provide an additional alternative or boost for African countries rejecting Western viewpoints and the demands of internationally funded organisations for the adoption of particular laws and rights. Kenya and Uganda have recently taken steps to further curtail same-sex behaviour. While Kenyan politicians are currently debating anti-LGBTQ legislation, (30) Ugandan lawmakers enacted the Anti-Homosexuality Act that President Museveni signed in May 2023, making “aggravated homosexuality” a death offense and same-sex relationships punishable by life in prison. (31) This sparked criticism from the United Nations, pro-LGBTQ groups, and Western powers, with the United States threatening to impose sanctions. In Uganda, the World Bank decided to suspend new loans and funding for projects the anti-homosexuality law (32).
The alliance on their position regarding same-sex activities between Iran and these nations was ascertained during President Raisi’s July visit to Uganda, where he delivered some words of solidarity to African states facing penalties because of their anti-same-sex stance. He attacked Western views towards homosexuality and accused the West of attempting to halt human evolution through the promotion of homosexuality.
Also, in response to the World Bank's decision to suspend new funding to his country, Uganda's president promised on 10 August 2023 to find alternative sources of credit, including revenues from oil production expected to begin by 2025, implying that the suspension might even be beneficial to his country because it had intended to reduce borrowing and resist caving in to pressure from foreign institutions and actors seeking to coerce Ugandans “into abandoning our faith, culture, principles, and sovereignty, using money”, adding that "they really underestimate all Africans.” (33).
Diversifying trade and economy
Among the aims of the Iranian leader's journey to Africa is to diversify his country's economy and avoid sanctions by leveraging Africa's massive customer base and transforming it into a platform for Iranian products. It can also offer some opportunities for African countries battling the aftermath of COVID-19 and the repercussions of the Russian-Ukrainian crisis, especially as Iranian authorities have subsequently expressed their discontent with the current volume of commerce on the continent. During the Iran-West Africa Economic Summit in March, Raisi emphasised the need to enable the involvement of Iran's and African countries' private sectors, as well as the removal of burdensome and inefficient laws and tariffs.
The Islamic Republic has taken a variety of steps, including sending business delegations to several African countries, staging exhibits and joint economic commissions, and engaging in discussions with both the private and public sectors. Aside from the two Iranian trade centres in Uganda and Tanzania, as well as its House of Innovation and Technology in Kenya, there are reports that Tehran will establish a General Bureau of African Affairs within the Trade Promotion Organization to manage and expand commercial ties with African countries, while plans to strengthen commerce ties with countries like Nigeria, Ghana, Mali, Niger, Congo and Algeria are underway.
The size of Iran’s trade with Africa remains minor in comparison to those of other international actors such as Turkey and Iran's competitor, Saudi Arabia. Iran's foreign ministry has said that it expects trade with African countries to increase to more than $2 billion this year. During the Iran-West African summit, it was revealed that trade between Iran and African countries had reached approximately $1.18 billion during the first ten months of the current Iranian year (21 March –20 January). During this period, South Africa was the main trading partner (with the value of bilateral trade amounting to $293.63 million), followed by Mozambique ($189.17 million) and Ghana ($152.62 million). According to figures from Iran's Customs Administration, the country exported goods worth $1.1 billion to Africa over the same period, representing a 13.47% and 18.91% increase in weight and value respectively. (34)
South Africa is the largest buyer of Iranian commodities (with a value of $282.52 million). Iran also exported goods to Mozambique that were worth $189.17 million and to Ghana that were worth $144.11 million. Other Iranian customers included the Ivory Coast, Djibouti, Algeria, Egypt, Guinea, Libya, Morocco, Mali, Macao, Mauritania, Mauritius, Mozambique, Nigeria, Sudan, Senegal, Somalia, Togo, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tunisia and Rwanda. Urea (worth $280 million), hot-rolled steel bars (worth $11 million), liquefied butane (worth $8 million), liquefied propane (worth $5.4 million), sulfur (worth $4.6 million), floorings (worth $2.8 million) and steel (worth $1.6 million) were the main Iranian exports to Africa during this time. (35)
Tanzania was reported to lead the list of African exports to Iran during the previously reported period, with a total value of $19.58 million in commodities sent to Iran. Kenya exported $15.27 million in commodities, while South Africa shipped 10,666 metric tonnes worth $12.11 million. This indicates that, despite economic restrictions and sanctions, Iranian manufacturers and exporters have efficiently evolved new ways to do business in recent years by doing market research and adapting to the demands of new consumers. (36)
However, there are concerns about the possibility of exporting the Middle East rivalry to Africa, the disparity in trade between African countries and Iran, and whether the new trade agreements and outreach are just another tactic to turn Africans into consumers of Iranian products, given a statement by an Iranian official that stated that the volume of goods imported by Iran from African countries during the same period registered a 37% decline compared to the previous year. During this time, Iran's imports from South Africa fell by 25%.
Some of the concerns were also expressed by the authorities and leaders of the African nations visited by the Iranian president. Kenyan President William Ruto, for example, while describing Iran as a "critical strategic partner" and "global innovation powerhouse," expressed interest in expanding the range of products above tea to include meat and other agricultural products to Iran and, through Iran, to Central Asian countries, as tea accounts for the majority of Kenya's exports to the Islamic republic.
The trilogy of agriculture, IT and manufacturing
Iran signed many agreements and MOUs in important areas with Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe, including those that the Iranian president identified as critical at the summit in March. In Kenya, the ministers of both countries signed five MOUs on information technology, fisheries, livestock products and investment promotion, while the Kenyan president announced Iran's plans to establish a manufacturing plant for Iranian vehicles in the port city of Mombasa. (37) Iran also signed 12 agreements with Zimbabwe on establish a tractor manufacturing plant in Zimbabwe with an Iranian company and a local partner; cooperation in energy, agriculture, pharmaceuticals and telecommunications; and projects in research, science and technology. (38)
As for Uganda, the two nations' business communities signed four cooperation papers, including a visa waiver, agricultural collaboration, the formation of a joint permanent commission, and a joint political declaration. Raisi suggested that trade between the two countries be increased to ten times the current level, and Museveni asked him for assistance with technology to develop oil refineries and petrochemical production, as well as cooperation in sending Ugandan agricultural products to Iran. (39)
Uganda's request for Iranian assistance in developing technology for an oil refinery and petrochemical production could be related to recent pressure from some European countries, international organisations and financial institutions to halt the construction of the country's planned oil refinery and oil pipeline, which is expected to cost between $4 billion and $5 billion, citing environmental concerns.
The issue, however, is not only whether Iran can complete all of the negotiated agreements and meet the demands of the three African presidents but also how quickly the various agreements will be executed. There are also concerns due to the Western sanctions and the unresolved issue with the Financial Action Task Force.
Nonetheless, the three countries' emphasis on Iranian technology and manufacturing reflects the current priorities of many African countries, as some are beginning to consider Iran's military capabilities, particularly in advanced drone production, in order to meet the increasing demand to face their security crises, especially since Western assistance in this regard is typically associated with human rights violations, good governance and democracy. Securing Iran's assistance can also help these nations rotate between Iran, China, and Russia, allowing them to build a pragmatic cooperation strategy that is not restricted by traditional Western constraints.
Given Iran's modest diplomatic presence in Africa (with fewer than 20 embassies), it is too early to say if the new Iranian engagement with the continent can successfully expand its involvement in Africa or compensate for its isolation elsewhere. Although the implications of Raisi's African visit are important, Tehran will still need to formulate its policy towards Africa in a way that takes the continent's new realities into account.
Finally, while Iran is relying on a shared political perspective and trade strategies, it will still require a practical approach to navigate opposition to its sectarian and political ideology among some Africans who question its intentions and are wary of local organisations that adopt its political and religious views. Some countries may also be concerned that their connections with Iran may harm their relations with Israel or Western countries. This implies that the success of Iran's recent steps is contingent on its ability to follow a flexible strategy backed by genuine economic momentum and balanced collaboration that does not jeopardise the sovereignty of the nations with which it works.
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