When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stepped on to the tarmac in Accra, the capital of Ghana, some wondered if the April trip would be his last visit abroad as the leader of Iran. Ghana wrapped up a broader tour of Africa that included stops in Niger and Benin. The fact that Ahmadinejad would even visit Ghana, a nation which the Shahist Iran only began diplomatic relations with in 1974, explains how Iranian foreign policy has evolved under his rule.
Ahmadinejad is the first leader of the Islamic Republic to look seriously at Africa. Outreach to Africa has allowed him to achieve several foreign and domestic policy goals, such as persuading average Iranians that Iran is a leading state in the Muslim and developing worlds, despite ongoing international sanctions. After all, until recently Muslims indisputably constituted at least a plurality of Africans. Ahmadinejad’s outreach to Africa has also benefited Iranian foreign policy by forcing Iran’s rivals to expend resources and energy countering Iranian moves there. In so doing, Ahmadinejad has relied on expanded economic ties and existing diplomatic institutions to expand Iran’s reach on the continent.
Despite Iran’s recent elections, Ahmadinejad has continued to push relations, meeting with African ambassadors in Tehran in recent weeks to announce Iran’s intention to build six refineries across the continent in order to cement relationships. Under Ahmadinejad, Iranian trade with Africa has reached over US$1 billion but economic development remains subservient to political goals. In this regard, Iran’s relationship with MTN Group, a South African telecommunications giant, has grown consistently: the company won a licence to develop mobile telecommunications in the Iranian market in 2005 and today commands a 45 percent market share. A legal case launched by Turkcell, the Turkish firm which lost out to MTN in 2005, alleges that the deal was made with MTN in part to gain access to South African weapons technologies. Iranian dissidents also claim the South African firm has been complacent in the Iranian government’s effort to control domestic IT communications.
These economic ties notwithstanding, the diplomatic aspects of Ahmadinejad’s outreach to Africa have been the most visible. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the G-15, a grouping of developing nations that includes several African states have become important venues for Iranian diplomatic efforts. Even more crucial for Ahmadinejad has been Iran’s time as head of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).
The National Chairman of Ghana’s Progressive People’s Party, Nii Allotey Brew-Hammond, put Ahmadinjad’s visit in this context for The Diplomat, “When I first heard he was coming, I was shocked, but his visit to Ghana was justified by his position as president of the Non-Aligned Movement. Without this title I don’t think Ahmadinejad would have been so warmly received in Ghana and across Africa.” The chairman was speaking at his headquarters, just a few blocks from an Iranian clinic in Accra’s Asylum Down district. Iran has also funded an Islamic university in the city.
However, Ahmadinejad’s most visible diplomatic triumph occurred in Cairo. In February, Ahmadinejad became the first Iranian leader to visit Egypt since the Islamic Revolution, and he was warmly greeted by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi (though ordinary Iranians were not as warmly welcomed). Here again Iran’s role in an international organization, this time the OIC’s Islamic Summit served as a convenient pretext for the visit. At the Islamic Summit, Iran took a leadership role on a number of issues like the crisis in Mali. African diplomats, who spoke off-the record on the sidelines of the conference, confided that Qatari and Iranian views on the situation in Mali had clashed with Qatar being hesitant to label the Mali rebels as terrorists. In a subsequent interview with The Diplomat, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Mahdi Akhondzadeh clarified Iran’s position on the issue. “We believe to help the Malian government to stabilize itself is part of the collective responsibility of the Muslim world. The people of Mali have been the victim of terrorism.”