Iran’s diplomatic and economic lifeline in Africa

2nd February 2012 By: In On Africa IOA

Iran’s nuclear programme has for a long time been at the centre of the world’s attention. Looking more closely at Iran’s position in the world, and the continuing diplomatic conflict between Iran and western nations, it is paramount to cast light on the impact Iran’s position has on the African continent. During the last few years Iran has actively sought to establish diplomatic ties with many African nations.(2) Iran has also invested in African development and aid, although the size of these contributions is dwarfed by European Union, United States and Chinese economic activities in Africa.

The reasons behind Iran’s activity on the African continent are to be found in attempts by the international community to isolate the country. As many nations try to pressure Iran into giving up its nuclear programme by denying it opportunities to import and export goods, Iran has moved to find access to African markets to which it can export oil and other goods, and from which it can import strategic resources. Apart from the economic motivations behind Iran’s involvement in Africa, the diplomatic support of African states in the United Nations (UN) has also been a strong motivation for Iran to keep African Governments close. In this CAI discussion paper Iran’s involvements in Africa, particularly in the fields of oil and uranium trade, are analysed in the wider context of economic, diplomatic and security sector consequences for both Iran and Africa.

Iranian and African oil interests

Iran has found it difficult at times to sustain a healthy economy while under sanctions by countries that oppose its nuclear programme. The loss of access to foreign markets threatens to completely isolate Iran. This is exactly why it has oriented itself towards the African developing markets, with implications for African economies. Firstly, the threat of new sanctions against Iranian oil exports(3) has forced Iran to expand on existing or initiate new oil exports to countries that are not part of those trying to isolate Iran’s economy. This is one of the main reasons why Iran attempts to diversify its oil exports to include growing economies in Africa. The diversification of export markets in itself generates an enhanced resilience against present and future economic sanctions. Furthermore, the provision of oil to African economies is also a useful lubricant to allow other forms of economic, diplomatic and security cooperation with the continent.

A second way in which the sanctions on Iran’s oil exports influence African industries is that major oil consuming nations are forced to import their oil from other countries if they desire to maintain a steady supply to support their energy needs. Since most of the world’s oil producing countries are already pumping out oil at the best rate they can, or believe is sensible, the weight of this shift in oil purchases falls on the shoulders of Africa’s still expanding oil production. Nigeria’s growing oil industry, for example, has been identified as one of the most important industries that will allow other nations to shed their dependence on imports from Iran. This creates a beneficial situation for some of Africa’s markets, provided they can live up to the demand, in that they gain access to Iranian oil while at the same time being able to export their own oil to other markets.

Trade and cooperation

Trade relations between Iran and African countries also deal with many products beside oil. Iran has been very active in the proliferation of energy infrastructure in several African countries. It has established deals to build or refurbish refineries and to assist in the construction of power plants and has even claimed to be willing to share its civil nuclear technology to allow African nations to meet their own growing energy needs. Iran has also shown interest in purchasing other resources from African nations, such as cocoa products from Ghana,(4) which are probably to be considered less strategic than oil and uranium trade, but nonetheless contribute to the developing markets of Africa and the survivability of Iran’s economy. In Senegal, Iran established a car manufacturing business which has already resulted in Iranian-designed cabs finding their way to Senegalese roads .(5) The export of cars or related infrastructure to Senegal, as well as Sudan, is necessary to Iran’s economy as it helps sustain the cost for Iran’s internal automobile industry, which it is forced to maintain to avoid a dependency on imports from countries that oppose its nuclear activities.

The establishment of trade, direct investments or exchanges of technology are not the only ways in which Iran has sought to create diplomatic and industrial openings on the African continent. Iran has also shown itself to be a benefactor to African nations in need and has, for example, been a major sponsor of necessary aid that was sent to Somalia.(6) These benevolent actions and the stressing of cultural proximity to the Islamic population of certain regions of Africa have allowed Iran to position itself as an alternative to what it refers to as the neo-colonial mindsets and imperialist intentions of the West.(7)

Uranium trade and nuclear ambitions

Probably the most important resource that Iran hopes to gain from its business in Africa is uranium ore. While Iran does have its own uranium mines and processing plants, the future of its nuclear programme partially relies on the import of this essential ore from abroad. In the past Iran has purchased nuclear fuel rods from countries such as Russia, but its reluctance to depend on the enrichment and sales of nuclear fuel by these countries has led Iran to ensure access to African uranium ore. The most obvious uranium-themed relationship between Iran and an African nation is that with Zimbabwe. President Robert Mugabe has agreed to trade affordable Iranian oil for access to what has been described as Zimbabwe’s strategic resources.(8) While Zimbabwe has uranium reserves, it lacks the know-how and technology to extract rich uranium ore.(9) This is exactly the type of expertise that Iran brings to the table, along with much-needed oil, to guarantee a close relationship between the two countries. Iran has also tried to establish a strategic relationship with Niger, one of Africa’s most important uranium producers, but much to Iran’s misfortune these attempts failed when former President Mamadou Tanja was removed from power during a coup in 2010.

The dark side of Iran’s Africa policy

Attempts by Iran to extract uranium from African nations have at times entered the realm of illegal activity and even leant support to terrorist organisations. In 2005, Tanzania stopped a ship that was found to be carrying uranium from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Iran.(10) The UN has at several times reported incidents of Iran’s illegal attempts to buy uranium. In 2009 the organisation reported that Iran had struck a deal with Somali rebels, some of whom were known terrorists, in which it would deliver certain weapons to these rebels in return for access to uranium reserves in Somali areas under the rebels’ control.(11)

Iran’s relationships with African countries have at many times ventured into unethical areas such as arms smuggling and support to ruthless political regimes or terrorists. In October 2010, Nigerian security forces discovered a vessel accompanied by Iranian Al Qaeda agents, filled with Iranian arms, which they believe were intended for parties that wanted to cause pre-election insecurity.(12) Iran tried to talk its way out of the scandal, implicating Gambia in the process. Nigeria was not too pleased and Gambia even ended all diplomatic relations with Iran in November of the same year.(13) In 2009, Israel caught a shipment of Iranian weapons being smuggled across land in Sudan and destroyed a convoy in an airstrike.(14) Apart from this illegal activity, even Iran’s legitimate involvement in Africa has not been honest or constructive at all times. Many a project and funding that were promised by Iran have eventually failed to materialise. A hydro-electric plant in Mali as well as an oil refinery installation in Senegal, for example, did not reach construction as Iran failed to produce promised funds in time or continues to stretch negotiations.(15) Even where projects did take off they have not always reached the promised potential, as is the case with the production of Iranian cars in Senegal.(16) Iranian involvement in Africa could not be called a disaster as far as its benefits to Iran go, but its carelessness at times sets it up for diplomatic failures it might not be able to afford.

Concluding remarks

The fact is that Iran has no other options left than to generate a wide base of support in Africa. Previously, Iran has depended on benevolent super-powers for diplomatic protection. Russia and China used to block any votes against Iranian interests in the UN Security Council. Continuous pressure from the west, however, has even caused Russia and China to withdraw some of their unconditional support for Iran. Situated in a region where few countries are to be considered allies and with powerful nations withdrawing their engagements, Iran has no other choice left but to establish a sustainable economic connection with Africa in order to avoid complete isolation. While Iran may have lost the support of any permanent UN Security Council members, it tries to make up for this by gathering a larger number of supporters in Africa in an attempt to fight off further sanctions. If Iran’s involvement in Africa turns out to be unsustainable it could present great problems to Iran in the future and may result in complete economic and diplomatic isolation that could lead to a collapse of Iran’s economy and Government. This situation effectively makes Africa Iran’s last option for normal political relationships and economic development. On the other hand, the broken promises and often illegal and unethical engagement Iran has brought to its dealings with Africa do not place African nations in a particularly strong position in the ever-growing relationship between the continent and Iran.

Notes:

(1) Contact Sim Tack through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Africa Watch Unit (africa.watch@consultancyafrica.com).
(2) ‘FM: Expansion of ties with Africa “Iran’s top priority”’, Fars News Agency, 3 January 2012, http://english.farsnews.com.
(3) Fletcher, M., ‘European oil ban to turn the screws on Iran’, The Australian, 21 January 2012, http://www.theaustralian.com.au.
(4) ‘Iran-Africa trade ties’, Africa Bussiness Pages, http://www.africa-business.com.
(5) Chimbelu, C., ‘Iran makes inroads in parts of Africa’, Deutsche Welle, 28 February 2010, http://www.dw-world.de.
(6) ‘Iran assists Somali displaced people’, Press TV, 23 December 2011, http://www.presstv.ir.
(7) ‘Iran: When mere existence is enough causus belli’, The Herald Online, 7 January 2012, http://www.herald.co.zw.
(8) ‘Iran and Israel in Africa’, The Economist, 4 February 2010, http://www.economist.com.
(9) Mahjar-Barducci, M., ‘Iran scooping up African Uranium’, Stonegate Institute, 7 October 2011, http://www.stonegateinstitute.org.
(10) Swain J., Leppard L. and Johnson-Thomas B., ‘Iran’s plot to mine uranium in Africa’, Times Online, 6 August 2006, http://www.timesonline.co.uk.
(11) Warner, J., ‘How Africa plays into Iran’s nuclear ambitions’, CNN, 17 January 2012, http://www.cnn.com.
(12) Gilani, E., ‘Iran’s African misfortunes’, Mianeh, 6 March 2011, http://mianeh.net.
(13) Bozorgmehr, N., ‘Gambia deals blow to Iran’s Africa diplomacy’, FT.com, 23 November 2010, http://www.ft.com.
(14) ‘Iran’s activity in East Africa, the gateway to the Middle East and the African continent’, Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, 29 July 2009, http://www.terrorism-info.org.il.
(15) ‘Iran in Africa – broken promises, terrorism and drugs’, Iran daily brief, http://www.irandailybrief.com.
(16) ‘Iran and Israel in Africa’, The Economist, 4 February 2010, http://www.economist.com.

Written by Sim Tack (1)