*This article was first published in November 2010 by Jane's Islamic Affairs Analyst.

The second half of 2010 witnessed a flurry of interaction between Iranian diplomats and their African counterparts. Not all the buzz has been beneficial to Tehran, as was most recently demonstrated by the Republic of the Gambia’s 22 November decision to break its ties with Iran, but the overall activity nonetheless reflects the increasing emphasis Tehran is putting on closer relations with countries on the continent.

This approach is meant to help the Islamic regime in Tehran achieve the kind of global role it envisages for itself by augmenting its political clout in regions of the world such as Africa and Latin America, where it evidently believes it can compete with Western powers for influence.

The recent climax of activity was arguably the two-day Iran-Africa Forum that was held in Tehran in early September. According to state-run Iranian media, government and public sector representatives from 40 African countries were in attendance and heard President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declare at the opening ceremony on 13 September that there were “no limits in the way of Iran- Africa co-operation.” The pro-regime Fars News Agency argued in an article at the time of the summit that the Ahmadinejad administration has “striven hard to maximize relations with the African continent” and that as a result, the African Union (AU) now considers Iran as one its “strategic partners.” However, despite the unquestionable diplomatic headway Tehran has made on the African continent in the past few years, an African triumph for Iran is still far from a lasting reality.

Limited historical ties

If one listens to the official Iranian description of the country’s associations with Africa, the impression given is one of enduring and solid ties. This portrayal, which is politically motivated and reflects Iran’s current need to break free of its diplomatic isolation, is an exaggeration. Aside from Persian conquests in Africa in antiquity and limited migration by Iranian people to parts of Africa, such as the Shirazi migrants who settled in present day Zanzibar, the overall interaction has been limited.

During the reign of Reza Shah Pahlavi (1941-1979), Iran did have close ties with Egypt and the Shah also had a close personal friendship with a number of African heads of states, such as Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie, but at no point before the 1979 Iranian revolution did Tehran consider Africa a continent of strategic importance to its needs.
This reality continued with the arrival of the regime in Tehran, despite its emphasis on what it called ‘third worldism’ and solidarity with movements such as the African National Congress in South Africa. The 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War meant Tehran had to prioritize its foreign dealings with states that could be of immediate use in its war effort against the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein and Africa simply did not figure significantly in this equation.

Africa, however, was in theory an ideal arena for Iranian overtures based on the guidelines stipulated in the postmonarchy constitution that was adopted in 1979. In Iran’s post-revolution constitution, four categories of states are specifically highlighted as preferred foreign partners. In order, they are: Iran’s immediate neighbors, Muslim states, Third World countries and states that can benefit the political, economic and military needs of Iran.

While Iran’s foreign policy aims and behavior have certainly not been limited by constitutional specifications, clearly many African states meet at least two of the above mentioned criteria: being Muslim and considered developing or Third-world nations. Accordingly, the number of Iranian embassies across Africa has doubled since 1979 to presently stand at 22 in total.
The first phase of Iranian outreach towards African states that began almost as soon as the Iran-Iraq war ended produced a mixed record. Iran and Egypt had already severed ties in 1980, and by 1993 Algeria and Zambia broke ties over suspicion of Iranian support for opposition groups. Elsewhere, as Tehran established closer ties with Khartoum, it made Sudan’s rival neighbors Ethiopia and Kenya anxious about Tehran’s regional footprint. In West Africa, Tehran fared better, as it centered its ties early on to states such as Mali, Niger, Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal on trade and economic development assistance.
With the arrival of the reformist President Mohammad Khatami in 1997, an overhaul of Iran’s foreign policy meant that Tehran began to pursue détente across a number of regions and this had a reassuring impact on African states, and as examples both Algeria and Zambia re-established ties with Iran in 2000 and 2001 respectively.

Rivaling the West

Ahmadinejad’s emergence as president in 2005 and the rise of the far right in Iranian politics has meant that Africa has become a key ideological battleground for officials in Tehran who believe that Iran can contest Western influence in regions where the West has left a void. Accordingly, a deputy foreign minister was assigned to oversee and promote Tehran’s relations across Africa. Iran has since become an observer member in the AU and has subsequently often touted itself as a “strategic partner” of the alliance. In September, Ahmadinejad repeatedly expressed Iran’s willingness to host a summit for all the heads of state from the AU.

One of the key themes that Iranian officials repeat in their message to their African counterparts is the notion of a mutual interest in combating “global injustice” and “colonial exploitation.” This sort of anti-Western language, which is evidently deemed to resonate with African elite and populations, is by no means limited to Ahmadinejad, who is renowned for his diatribes.

On 9 November, Ali Larijani, the speaker of the Iranian parliament and a political rival of Ahmadinejad, told his Djiboutian counterpart, Edris Arnato, that “the Islamic Republic of Iran has a special look at the African continent and, of course, the strategy of the Islamic Revolution is based on fighting colonialism and arrogance as well as defending the oppressed, specially the African nations.” On 3 November, Fars News quoted Larijani to have told his Comorian counterpart, Burhan Hamid, that the “presence of the colonialists in different parts of the world has always been a cause of tension” and that “resistance against the colonialist powers is the sole way to reach independence and economic progress.”

Meanwhile, in July Ahmadinejad was reported by Iran’s Ettelaat newspaper to have told a group of Malian clergymen: “God’s promise will soon come true and his child will arrive to bring justice to the world.” This sort of political rhetoric is certainly meant to give Tehran an advantage over Western powers that have historically been most influential in Africa. However, Tehran’s long term ambitions to become a regional power with reach in distant Africa and Latin America aside, Iranian officials are also clearly concerned with the short term need to maximize diplomatic support from the 53 African states at the UN as Tehran struggles to prevent further international resolutions against it.

Pragmatic calculations

One of the key diplomatic preoccupations of the Iranian government in recent years has been to argue its case and defend Tehran’s human rights record at international bodies such as the UN. In this context, African support for Iran appears to have been a key objective aimed at reducing international censure. Mohsen Qomi, a researcher at Iran’s Foreign Ministry, argued in a 2009 paper that “African states have played an important positive role” in the way votes have been cast on resolutions dealing with Iran’s human rights record.

According to Qomi, “[A total of] 11 African states are at any given time members of the 53-member strong UN commission on human rights.” This has so far been a factor in Iran’s favor. As an example, a 2006 Canadian-sponsored resolution against Iran received no support from African states. The same logic and pursuit of African votes at international bodies has been evident in relation to Iran’s nuclear standoff at the IAEA and the UN.

However, domestic critics of the Ahmadinejad’s government say that the increasing reliance on African diplomatic support for Iran is short sighted at best and that African states will by and large only support Tehran’s positions at international forums on tactical matters and when their pro-Iran votes are unlikely to upset the West. Such critics argue that there is no signs that African states are emerging as a bloc that will defy international consensus on Iran, and point to Nigeria and Uganda both voting in favor of more sanctions against Tehran in June at the UN despite heightened Iranian overtures that included a last-minute trip to Kampala by President Ahmadinejad.

Danger of blowback

While visiting that country, Ahmadinejad stated in September 2010: “Iran and Zimbabwe can change the global order.” Back in Iran, Javed Qorban Oqli, a former Iranian ambassador to South Africa under President Khatami, wrote on the opposition website “Iranian Diplomacy” that empty slogans by Iran’s leaders in Africa could easily result in a blowback that could seriously undercut any headway that Tehran might have made across Africa in recent years. In reference to Ahmadinejad’s statement, Oqli noted that “Zimbabwe is a failed economy and state” and that sloganeering was no substitute for rooted policy when in reality “Iran has had no real economic or political successes in Africa.” He also warned that Iranian leaders should not freely make promises of economic co-operation and aid in Africa as failure to deliver would only turn African opinion against Tehran. Warnings about Ahmadinejad’s African mirage grew louder in October and November following Nigeria’s seizure of a cargo of Iranian arms and the Gambia’s decision suddenly to break ties with Tehran. Iran maintained that the arms were a legal transshipment of weaponry sold by a private company in Iran to a customer in the Gambia but Lagos still reported the incident to the UN given that Tehran is under an arms exports embargo. The Iranian Foreign Ministry first sought to downplay the incident as a misunderstanding, but later alleged that it was American pressure on the Gambians that had led to their decision to sever ties with Tehran.

Islamic Republic News Agency, controlled by the government of Ahmadinejad, quoted Alaeddin Borujerdi, the chairman of the parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, as saying that Washington was seeking to “undermine Iran’s ties with African states whenever it can.” Borujerdi at once said that the Ahmadinejad administration has acted pro-actively in reaching out to Africa but then played down Iran’s relationship with the Gambia saying that “relations were not on the highest level” and that Iran did not even “maintain an embassy there.” This attempt at a public relations spin, however, was clearly not proving sufficient for the government’s critics. Opposition outlets jumped at the issue as another example of how the Ahmadinejad government is hurting Iranian interests. The news agency Fararu quoted a reformist parliamentarian, Qodratollah Alikhani, who called the Gambia’s actions against Tehran an “insult” and said: “These problems are created by a government that gives significance to African states [as it wants to challenge the West], while these African countries do not respect Iran’s dignity.” Alikhani urged the government to learn from their mistakes and “act expediently in the future.” Both opposition Rah-e Sabz and Kaleme websites carried the issue as a significant news item and reminded their readers that only a year ago Ahmadinejad had visited the Gambia where he had spoken of “brotherly and close ties.”

There is little doubt that the recent seizure of Iranian weapons by Nigerian security forces and subsequent diplomatic setbacks that Tehran has faced with the Gambia is an embarrassment for Iran’s diplomatic standing on the African continent. Still, this does not necessarily mean that the tide has turned and that Iran will relinquish its hopes for a stronger footprint in Africa. Ahmadinejad’s administration has made significant political investments in relations from Zimbabwe to Senegal and from Sudan to South Africa, and by most accounts remains committed to deeper ties. Meanwhile, as has been the case from the outset, domestic critics of Ahmadinejad will continue to argue that Tehran’s overtures toward Africa are hasty and feeble and can easily be undermined by Iran’s rivals, a situation that will damage Iran’s long term standing as Ahmadinejad seeks to score tactical points against the West.

Assertions and opinions in this Policy Insight are solely those of the above-mentioned author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.