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.”
Others are skeptical of the allegations, however. David Roberts, Director of the Qatar office of Royal United Services Institute offered this view: “The idea that the Qatari state would actively want to support Al Qaeda militants in Mali is absurd.” Roberts does concede, however, that every dollar of Qatari aid is difficult to account for and that the aims of private charity groups are even more opaque.
The Horn of Africa is another region which has seen increased interest from Iran under Ahmadinejad. This past February, a United Nations investigation claimed that Iranian and North Korean arms were being smuggled into Somalia. Iran has also been accused of supporting Hamas and the Houthi rebels in Yemen through Red Sea smuggling efforts. "Under Ahmadinejad, Iran has devoted greater attention to developing relationships with groups and actors hostile to U.S. interests in the region, including the Horn of Africa," explains Daniel Tavana, Research Associate at the Project on Middle East Democracy.
Despite being accused of indirectly supporting Al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda affiliated, Somalia-based Salafist group, Iran has also maintained warm ties with Somalia’s government. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi has pledged to develop an Iranian medical facility there similar to the Iranian clinic in Ghana. In Somalia, however, Iranian influence has provoked a renewed Turkish engagement with the continent. In 2011, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan became the first non-African head of state to visit the country since 1991, and soon after his visit Turkey hosted a meeting of the OIC in Istanbul where US$350 million in aid was pledged to rebuild Somalia. Altogether, Ankara’s spending on development in Africa has reach over US$100 million this decade and Turkey currently has 34 embassies on the continent, up from just 12 in 2009.
Iran’s relationship with Sudan has also concerned many countries in the Western world. The Sudan is the one country in Africa with which the Islamic Republic has long had warm ties. Following the death of the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani greatly expanded relations between the two nations. Ahmadinejad has reaffirmed Sudanese-Iranian political ties and emphasized the two nations' joint struggle against “colonialists.” Sudan has long been suspected of serving as a transit point for Iranian arms headed to Hamas in the Gaza strip, and in October 2012, mysterious explosions rocked a weapons facility in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital. Sudan promptly blamed Israel for the attack and, just days later, Iranian warships made a port visit to Sudan.
Indeed the Iranian navy has expanded its operations along the Africa coast under Ahmadinejad in a bid to expand its role in the Indian Ocean. In 2008 Iran began participating in anti-piracy missions in the Gulf of Aden and, following the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, two Iranian warships provocatively transited the Suez Canal. Iran also enjoys warm relations with Eritrea (who supports al-Shabaab in Somalia) and reportedly established a military base at the port city of Assab in southern Eritrea in 2008 (Israel is thought to have countered with its own military base in the country).
Each leader of the Islamic Republic has brought a distinct style to Iranian foreign policy. As Supreme Leader in the 1980s, Grand Ayatollah Khomeini was a staunch anti-colonialist, framing Iran’s position in the world as “neither East nor West.” Yet, his tone failed to strike a lasting chord among African governments, many of whom looked skeptically at the Islamic Republic of Iran due to its efforts to spread its Shi’a revolutionary model. (Senegal even shut down the Iranian embassy in Dakar during Khomeini’s rule, and again in 2010).
Although it is difficult to ascribe a specific African foreign policy to Khomeini’s successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the presidents serving under him have left a mark on Iran’s approach to the continent. President Rafsanjani’s foreign policy can be depicted as post-revolutionary pragmatism, while President Khatami’s foreign policy favored multilateral cooperation and a “dialogue of civilizations.” Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy in Africa has incorporated elements of all three, mixing the rhetoric of Khomeini with Rafsanjani’s opportunism and Khatami’s emphasis on multilateral institutions.
With the leadership changing hands, Ahmadinejad’s efforts may be frivolous if Hassan Rowhani takes Iranian foreign policy in a new direction. If Iran continues to engage the region, however, it will continue to have success in light of the Obama Administration’s lack of clear policy goals in Africa.
Joseph Hammond is a freelance writer and former correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.