In August 2022, Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs Hossein Amir-Abdollahian made his first trip to Africa since taking office. During this trip, Abdollahian visited Mali, Tanzania, and Zanzibar. It is worth noting that this trip occurred after a delegation from Mauritius led by the country’s Minister of Labor and Trade traveled to Iran on 16 August 2022. This 60-member delegation to Tehran demonstrated an interest on Africa’s part in developing ties with Iran.
Iran is trying to expand the scope of its ties with African countries in order to achieve various objectives, including the following:
1. Looking for alternatives to the West: Iran has continued to pressure the West during negotiations over the nuclear deal and is keen to demonstrate that it has other options if the Vienna nuclear talks are unsuccessful. This means Iran will develop its relations with countries beyond the West, especially Russia, China, and India, as well as Central Asia, the Caucasus, Latin American countries such as Venezuela, and sub-Saharan African countries such as Mali and Tanzania. For Tehran, developing ties with these countries, especially in the economic sphere, could serve its interests in avoiding dependence on the West or on a nuclear deal that could collapse without US assurances that it will not withdraw again.
2. Support from Africa in international organizations: Iran is not ruling out the possibility of continued conflict with Western countries, even if a nuclear deal is reached during the coming period, given ongoing tensions between the two sides on key issues. In this scenario, Tehran feels that international organizations will be a likely arena of conflict and is trying to win the support of countries outside the West, especially in Africa. Iran is working to develop ties with South Africa and the 15th meeting of the High Joint Committee between the two countries is expected to be held in Pretoria next October. South Africa’s Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation also visited Iran on 23 May 2022 and met with Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Economic Diplomacy Mehdi Safari.
3. Strengthening Iran’s economic presence in Africa: In addition to other Iranian diplomatic activity, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has made efforts to bolster Iranian economic activity in Africa. This was reflected in statements made on 16 August 2022 by Mohamed Sadegh Ghanadzadeh, who oversees the Department of African Affairs in the Iranian Trade Promotion Organization (TPO). Ghanadzadeh affirmed that the TPO was planning to increase centers of trade in Africa from 3 to 10 centers during the fiscal year ending on 20 March 2023. During a meeting held in the African-Iranian House, he also mentioned that 400 African business delegations had visited Iran since the beginning of the fiscal year. He added that Iran had signed various contracts to develop infrastructure as well as air and maritime freight and shipping, and that preparations were underway to sign a contract with South Africa to launch air and maritime navigation lines.
An Iranian-Senegalese joint economic committee is also set to be established during the coming period in order to strengthen bilateral economic ties. The seventh meeting of the Iranian-Ghanaian joint economic cooperation committee was also held on 20 May 2022. The Minister of Agriculture Jihad, Javad Sadatinejad, stated during this meeting that Iran was planning to increase trade between the two countries to 1 billion dollars. He added that trade between the two countries had increased tenfold between 2018 and 2022 and had reached 370 million dollars by the end of the last fiscal year (ending 20 March 2022).
Economic growth was a driving force behind the Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs’ trip to Africa. During his meeting with President of Tanzania Samia Hassan on 26 August 2022, the Iranian minister said that Iran had huge economic potential in the fields of trade, energy, industry, technology, and the academy. He emphasized the need to increase the number of Iranian companies and businesspeople in Tanzania and to remove some of the consular obstacles including travel visa requirements. During a meeting with President of Zanzibar Hussein Mwinyi, the Iranian foreign minister also indicated that Iran was prepared to facilitate greater involvement of Iranian businesspeople in Zanzibar.
4. Filling the vacuum left by France: Abdollahian’s trip to Mali can also be understood against the backdrop of rising tensions between Mali and France. On 15 August 2022, the last French soldier was withdrawn from Mali, after France’s involvement with the Barkhane force and counterterrorism operations. Two days later, Mali submitted a complaint to the UN Security Council that it had evidence that France had backed terrorist groups within Mali. Abdollahian tried to exploit this tension to strengthen ties between Iran and Mali. He stated on 23 August that some countries had meddled in Mali’s internal affairs and supported terrorist groups, which had exacerbated Mali’s security situation.
It seems that improving relations between Mali and Iran is of particular interest for the military regime in Mali, which came to power via a coup that resulted in sanctions from other African countries and the African Union, and caused tensions with the West. The regime tried to respond to this through developing ties with other global "pariah" states, especially Russia and Iran, and made an arms deal with Russia and the Wagner Group. It is plausible that Iran could try to get involved in this sphere through providing military aid to Mali in order to expand its sphere of influence as well.
5. Establishing a foothold near regional crisis hotspots such as Libya: Iran might also be trying to develop ties with Mali and other African countries in order to establish a foothold near regional crisis hotspots, especially Libya. This mirrors the steps that other regional and international powers such as Russia and Turkey are trying to take in this regard. Former Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs Ali Akbar Salehi revealed to the Khorasan newspaper in early January 2022 that the Quds Force had backed an armed faction in Libya after the fall of the Gaddafi regime under the auspices of the Iranian Red Crescent. Salehi said he traveled to Libya in 2011 and that logistical facilities had been established to support this faction under the orders of former Quds Force Commander Qassim Soleimani. Salehi added that Soleimani had personally overseen the appointment of ambassadors to North African countries.
6. Continuing to spread Iranian Shi’ism abroad: Iran’s interest in developing ties with African countries also reflects its desire to spread Shi’ism in these countries through taking advantage of worsening economic and social crises. Some Iranian religious and charitable organizations have played a key role in these efforts, such as the Iranian Red Crescent. The head of the Red Crescent, Karim Hemmati, announced in a meeting with Côte d’Ivoire’s minister of public health on 13 January 2021 that Iran would export medicine to Côte d’Ivoire and other West African countries.
During Abdollahian’s visit to Mali, he delivered 100,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine that Iran had manufactured. It is worth noting that the Iranian media has recently focused on Shi’ite activities in Africa, especially during Ashura celebrations. This suggests that Iran is actively trying to strengthen its presence in Africa using various mechanisms, especially Shi’ism.
A Clear Policy
In conclusion, Iran will continue its efforts to develop ties with African countries especially in sub-Saharan Africa. Iran hopes to reap various economic and strategic benefits from these ties, given ongoing tensions in its relations with the West. Even if a nuclear deal is reached with the West during the coming period, this will not resolve the underlying lack of trust in bilateral relations.