Is Iran "retuning" its relations with the African continent?
By Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah
Following its reconciliation with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the renewal of diplomatic relations with the Gulf States, Iran is stepping up its "diplomatic blitz," this time aimed at North Africa, Sudan, and East Africa. These regions witnessed in the past the impact of Iran's military and terrorist subversion but were at times also part of an intense diplomatic, political, economic, and military cooperation with the Islamic Republic. For the first time since the last visit of President Ahmadinejad to the African continent 11 years ago, the President of Iran, Ebrahim Raisi, visited on July 12–13, 2023, three African countries in the Horn of Africa – Uganda, Kenya, and Zimbabwe – that have always been a focus of interest to Tehran.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi met with Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune in Qatar in 2022. (Iranian President's office)
Indeed, Iran attaches particular importance to Eastern African countries. It sees in this region a vast and fertile field for political, military, and economic activities, particularly the countries bordering the Red Sea coast. However, until now, Iran has yet to forge robust partnerships across Africa. Despite the tendency of Iranian officials (such as the Director General of African Affairs at the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs) to present Iran's supposedly strong ties with African states as a replacement for its almost nonexistent relations with the European Union and lack of diplomatic ties with the United States, Tehran's presence and influence in the region fades in comparison to that of its neighbors. With fewer than 20 embassies in Africa, Iran's limited diplomatic presence underscores its lack of a vision for developing comprehensive African relationships to compensate for its isolation elsewhere. In contrast, Turkey has embassies in 44 African countries while Turkish Airways serves 55 destinations in Africa – two assets Turkey has used to develop strategic and diplomatic clout across the continent.
Tehran's diplomatic absence is not the only reason it has been relegated to the role of a junior player on the world's second-largest continent. Iran is also perceived as a malign actor by many governments in Africa – mainly due to its efforts to export its favored version of political Islam – making them suspicious of Iran's intentions and reluctant to embrace it as a trusted partner.
Are we on the verge of a turning point towards Africa by Iran's decision-makers?
Indeed, the geo-political context had changed radically: The Trump Administration succeeded with the signing of the "Abraham Accords" to normalize relations between Israel, Morocco, and the leading Gulf states, while Sudan had already been approached and expressed its readiness to join the Accords. Rumors also spread almost daily relating to a possible rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia while the Kingdom is hosting for the first time an Israeli gaming team and playing the Israeli anthem at the beginning of the tournament. The strategic playing field is more complex as Iran's regional competitors – Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Israel – have each developed extensive economic and security relations across Africa.
With this background, it seems that Raisi's visits to the Horn of Africa, together with a renewed effort to approach African potential partners, represent an Iranian effort to "retune" Iran's relations with the African continent, a continent Raisi's predecessor, Hassan Rouhani (2013 -2021), chose to neglect during his eight years tenure, prioritizing détente and rapprochement with the United States, Western Europe, China and Russia, which culminated with the signature of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action ( JCPOA) in 2015 and the partial lifting of sanctions that accompanied it in 2016. Rouhani's attitude toward Africa was mirrored by the list of his official visits outside Iran. As of 2020, Rouhani had visited over 55 countries in Europe, Asia, and the Americas. Rouhani never traveled to Africa, and only the presidents of Ghana, South Africa, and Zimbabwe visited Iran, but only after the JCPOA was signed and the sanctions partially revoked in 2016 and 2017. Unlike his predecessors, Rouhani chose not to visit Africa, and the low levels of trade with the continent also reflected his inattention.
Raisi's ascent to the presidency seems to coincide with the wind of change blowing from Tehran, which had already impacted its policy and decision-making. In his annual speech on the Nowruz, the Persian New Year, which fell on March 21, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared, "Strong relations with Africa and Latin America are part of our definite agenda and, God willing, we will pursue this plan."
Facing this restructuring of the region and its present situation, Iran has embarked on a policy meant to:
However, at present, Iran is aiming to strengthen its political partnership with Algeria, a key ally and Iran's leading partner in North Africa. Taking advantage of the enmity between the two North African rivals, Algeria and Morocco, and Algeria's opposition to Israeli participation in any all-African forum, to counterbalance the Israeli "new" presence in Morocco following the Abraham Accords and the recognition by the Trump Administration of Morocco's sovereignty over Western Sahara, Tehran's offered its support for opposition groups and mainly to the Polisario Front. The Polisario is a puppet militia organization at the service of Algeria that poses a threat to the Maghreb and Sahel region and Europe. Indeed, Morocco has spoken out on several occasions on this issue, urging Iran to cease its support for the terrorist Sahrawi group and warning that supplying drones to the Polisario will destabilize the region.
Morocco, a key player in the Muslim world and Africa's sixth-largest economy, has been consistently antagonized by Iran, and the two countries' relations have been checkered for years. In 2009, Rabat severed relations with Tehran while charging Iran with spreading Shiism across Sunni-majority Morocco. After restoring relations five years later, Morocco again cut diplomatic ties with Iran in 2018, accusing it of using Hizbullah to support the Algerian-backed Polisario.
Indeed, Algeria allowed the Islamic Republic of Iran to use its embassy in Algiers as a conduit for arms, funding, and training for the Polisario forces.
The Algerians appeared to be reciprocating by suddenly charging that Israel and a "North African country" were assisting a Berber-speaking movement in northern Algeria, known as Kabylia, which calls for self-determination of its population, effectively breaking it off from Algeria.
Despite the Supreme Leader's New Year declarations, Iran's efforts to strengthen its foreign relations in critical regions, including Africa, have made no significant breakthrough. The Iranian commitment to Africa has not produced concrete successes, and no breakthrough should be expected for Iran's overseas agenda. Still, unlike his predecessor, Raisi's policy towards Africa could be interpreted as an effort to retune relations with a continent that had been ignored in the last decade. No doubt Iran will continue to encourage the spread of Shiism in Africa while taking advantage of the instability that prevails in many regions in the continent to penetrate those vacillating and shaky regimes, thus combating Western influence and putting up a headwind toward Israel's efforts to consolidate its positions in Africa. It remains to be seen how Raisi will distance himself from Rouhani's policies by strengthening relations with these countries beyond rhetoric into practice.
Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.