SHIRO WACHIRA – Is Iran barking up the wrong tree in Africa?
ON HIS RECENT VISIT TO ISRAEL, US Secretary of Defence, Leon Panetta, stated that “Iran should not and will not develop a nuclear weapon…we will work with Israel together as well as with the international community to make sure that does not happen.” His strong stance has been reiterated by Israel, amongst other countries. It is therefore unsurprising that Iran would begin to look for allies wherever it can find them. This is particularly true given the waning support of Russia and China, which also explains a growing Iranian presence in Latin America and, more recently, in Africa.
Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has long expressed hostilities towards the developed world. Iran has long been eager to lead the “developing world against developed countries,” as Charles Szrom writes in a 2010 report from the American Enterprise Institute. And as it prepares to take up the presidency of the Non-Aligned Movement — the 115 member group that represents the interests of the developing nations it is comprised of — it seems appropriate to ask: Is Iran barking up the wrong tree?
The relationship between African nations and Iran has the potential to be mutually beneficial. Iran has found it increasingly difficult to maintain economic stability in light of ever-tightening sanctions from the West. Emerging African economies provide a captive market for Iranian oil and thus lend Tehran both greater economic security as well as an avenue through which it may expand economic, military and diplomatic ties in the continent.
Africa stands to gain too. Assuming that most oil exporting countries are producing the maximum amount of oil that they feel is sensible, there is room for nascent African oil producers to help satisfy the largest oil consumer nations. If these African nations are able to meet foreign demand, they stand to gain from cheaper Iranian imports while exporting their own oil at more competitive prices.
Iran’s involvement in Africa already extends beyond oil trade, and is bound to only increase further. Past Iranian projects in Africa include several industrial investments in Senegal — including a less than successful car manufacturing plant — that led to a Senegalese endorsement of Iran’s nuclear programs in 2009. Additionally, between 2005 and 2010, Iran invested nearly $2 billion in diplomatic aid into Gambia, a country ruled by the oppressive Yahya Jammeh, as well as became involved in cocoa purchases in Ghana and infrastructure development in the Sudan.
Perhaps the strongest diplomatic relationships that Iran has forged in Africa are those with West African nations, as was demonstrated in 2009 when only Liberia and Togo voted against Iran at a United Nations session in November. Iran has also tried to establish relations with larger African nations such as South Africa, which imports 1/4 of its oil from Iran, and Kenya to whom Iran has pledged a $16 billion dollar credit line towards infrastructure development. Iran seeks to provide African nations with an alternative to what it has dubbed “the neocolonial mind sets and imperialist intentions of the West,” according to an editorial in Haaretz
Perhaps most troubling to large sections of the international community would be Iran’s trade in uranium ore with turbulent African nations. These countries often do not have the capacity to make use of their uranium reserves domestically and their uneasy relationships with the West hamper or bar exports to more transparent uranium consumers. Iran has entered an agreement with Zimbabwe under which it has been able to obtain access to the country’s uranium reserves in exchange for cheap Iranian oil.
As a sanction-riddled and economically unstable nation, it is easy to imagine the benefit earned by Zimbabwe from such an arrangement. Even more worrying are Iran’s illegal activities in Africa that are aimed at obtaining uranium from the continent’s most unstable areas. In 2005, an illegal shipment of uranium from the DRC was intercepted by Tanzanian authorities and Iran did attempt to broker a deal with Somali rebels in order to access uranium reserves in the rebel controlled territories.
AN UNDEMOCRATIC ALLIANCE
When examining Iran’s track record in Africa a pattern quickly emerges: Iran has been most successful in strengthening ties with African dictators whose nations also face harsh sanctions from the international community.
This situation is both good and bad.
The good news is that because these countries are economically and politically marginalised in the international community, they would not be able to provide the leverage or protection that Iran needs against the West to continue its nuclear proliferation activities. Iran’s weak allies, such as Zimbabwe, have little to no say at international forums and do not have significant regional influence; they cannot lobby other African nations or African regional bodies to lend their political or economic support to Iran.
On the other hand, allowing these relationships to go unchecked may be dangerous. The current environment gives both Iran and its African allies time. As long as there remain avenues for Iran to circumvent Western sanctions, it is reasonable to assume that it shall continue with its nuclear aims. Although Iran’s African allies are too weak to confer it any sort of economic stability, let alone prosperity, they continue to provide a channel for the most essential goods to be imported into Iran. They also contribute to Iran’s economic survival by providing markets for Iranian oil and manufactured goods.
From the African perspective these alliances can be dangerous too. The dictators ruling over Iran’s African allies are able to keep their regimes afloat a little longer as a result of Iranian investments and cheap oil imports. While it is certain that Iran’s aid is unsustainable and often unreliable, the relief that it brings from the pressure of international sanctions placed against many of these undemocratic regimes provides them with leverage against their people.
ASSESSING THE THREAT
It is important to not to overstate the importance of Iran’s involvement on the continent. Iran’s investments in Africa are minuscule compared to western nations and the growing Chinese influence. Iran simply cannot afford to invest in urban infrastructure development projects on the scale that China has been able to recently.
Moreover, it would be prudent to remember that although large and more democratic African nations have been involved with Iran at various points, these relationships lack any sort of lasting power. Take, for instance Iran’s trade relationship with South Africa, Africa’s largest economy. South Africa was slow in ceasing oil imports from Iran, halting them completely only in June ahead of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to the nation. Nevertheless South African feared that American and European banks would take punitive action, which was enough to spur authorities into action.
A similar situation or Iranian involvement exists in East Africa. In July, the Kenyan government arrested two suspected Iranian terrorists and appealed to the FBI and Interpol for help in addressing the potential terrorist threat in the country. Kenya showed that, at the very least, it is unwilling to provide a cover for Iran’s more covert dealings in Africa.
The bottom line is this: Iran’s total aid to African nations is more than trumped by American, European and Chinese aid. Diplomatic and trade relationships with the West are much more important to most African countries, particularly the largest and most democratic ones, than those with Iran. Thus it is unlikely that Iran will be able to build any sort of significant support base in the continent.
However, as China’s astounding involvement in Africa has shown recently, the African vote can be swayed. The West should be careful not to ignore this rapidly growing region that is primed to reap the benefits of the demographic dividend.
SHIRO WACHIRA is a contributing editor to the Post-War Watch.