Iranian President Raisi’s Tour to Africa: Beyond Solidarity Rhetoric
What is the significance of the recent Iranian tour to Africa? How can the timing and motives be viewed? And what are the potential benefits for Africa?
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visited three African countries last month, which included Kenya, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. The trip marks the first by an Iranian president in over a decade. So what’s the significance of the tour? And how can the timing and motives be viewed? And what are the potential benefits for Africa?
Iran-Africa relations have a long history dating back to the Persian Empire’s era. In modern times, Iran has sought to expand its influence in Africa, viewing the continent as a battleground for power and influence against Saudi Arabia and the West.
The Islamic Republic has pursued diplomatic, economic, security, maritime, commercial, and cultural exchanges with African countries. However, the relationship has been characterised by ups and downs, with Iran experiencing both successes and failures in expanding its influence in Africa.
Under the Ahmadinejad administration, Iran pursued an African policy with unsatisfactory results. The relationship also hit another major setback under Hassan Rouhani, who concentrated on engagement with the West and failed to establish significant ties with African countries as an alternative way to enhance its influence.
Raisi’s trip to Africa significantly differed from his predecessor’s foreign policy, which focused on engagement with Western powers. Instead, Raisi has sought to build closer ties with non-Western states, such as those in Africa. Additionally, he has achieved notable results by pursuing strategic partnerships with Russia, China, and Latin American countries to show that Iran has other options besides the West.
The Raisi administration viewed his predecessor’s neglect of African relations as a mistake that squandered opportunities in the region, something he aimed to rectify during his tenure. In contrast to Raisi’s groundbreaking Africa visit, his predecessor Hassan Rouhani did not travel to the continent during his eight years as Iran’s president.
Timing and motive of the visit
The recent diplomatic foray of Iran’s Ebrahim Raisi into the African continent, explicitly targeting Kenya, Uganda, and Zimbabwe, occurs against mounting economic constraints posed by the weight of U.S. sanctions.
This strategic endeavour unfolded in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear accord in 2018, coupled with the reimplementation of sanctions, which has significantly contributed to Iran’s acute economic turmoil. Notably, the United States has increasingly relied on economic pressure as a tool in its engagement with Iran, even as the pursuit of comprehensive multilateral support faces persistent challenges.
Since the epochal 1979 revolution, Tehran has remained entrenched in its discordant relationship with the United States, consistently striving to project itself as a countervailing force to American dominance. The enduring objective of resisting U.S. pressure has manifested itself in various strategies, including forging close alliances with nations such as Russia, advancing domestic ballistic missile capabilities, and disseminating its idiosyncratic revolutionary principles across the Middle East.
In June, Raisi’s diplomatic overtures extended to Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua to reinforce solidarity with allies grappling with parallel U.S. sanctions. Similarly, the astute selection of Uganda and Zimbabwe as African destinations aligns with Iran’s endeavour to foster new alliances on the continent, particularly with nations sharing the common experience of Western sanctions.
Is this alignment coincidental?
This diplomatic sojourn forms a pivotal component of Iran’s overarching strategy to fortify its foreign relations and cultivate novel African partnerships. The visit takes on greater importance amid mounting pressure on Iran from the U.S. and Europe over its nuclear and missile programmes and ongoing drone exports to Russia in the Ukraine conflict.
Iran’s diplomatic footprint in Africa remains relatively modest, encompassing 21 embassies across 54 countries. This reality underscores the strategic imperative of expanding its influence within the region.
Moreover, Africa serves as a coherent voting bloc in pivotal international forums such as the United Nations General Assembly, offering Iran a viable platform to offset the pressures exerted by sanctions. By nurturing enhanced ties with nations like Kenya, Iran secures direct backing in UN votes and bolsters its broader regional sway.
Iran’s diplomatic and economic outreach to Africa
Before President Ebrahim Raisi visited Africa in July 2023, Iran’s foreign minister and other high-ranking officials visited Mali, Tanzania, South Africa, and Niger in the past two years in a broader effort to cultivate political ties with African countries.
Iran has also launched several initiatives to expand its African presence, including opening the Iran House of Innovation and Technology in Kenya and a specialised office exporting biotechnology products to Uganda.
In addition to these efforts, Iran has also expressed its desire to resume diplomatic ties with Morocco and held talks with the Sudanese foreign minister to discuss the potential normalisation of relations. During a visit by Algerian Foreign Minister Ahmed Attaf to Tehran in early July 2023, Iran and Algeria agreed to restore formal diplomatic relations after an extended breach.
These recent efforts to expand diplomatic and economic engagement with African countries reflect its strategic priorities under Raisi. By cultivating closer ties with African partners, Iran hopes to demonstrate its independence from the West and take advantage of opportunities for trade and investment on the continent.
Areas of agreements and collaborations
Ebrahim Raisi’s visit to Africa yielded substantial business deals, with Iran signing 21 memoranda of understanding across various sectors with three African countries: Kenya, Uganda, and Zimbabwe.
Five were signed in Kenya, which spread across investment promotion, communications, healthcare, livestock breeding, and maritime fishing. The two sides discussed expanding agricultural trade beyond Kenya’s tea exports to Iran. Raisi outlined plans to establish an Iranian vehicle manufacturing plant in the port city of Mombasa, showcasing Tehran’s interest in transferring technical expertise.
Raisi also unveiled Iran’s new Pelican 2 agricultural drone in Kenya, highlighting Iranian technology with dual civilian and potential military uses. This fueled speculation that Iran aims to expand arms sales and drone transfers to African partners. Countries like Mali and Ethiopia have already acquired Iranian unmanned aerial vehicles.
While Iran touts development cooperation, the defence angle risks causing wariness. This calls for a diplomatic approach, as Iran must balance its economic outreach and technology transfers with sensitivity to African misgivings about exacerbating security challenges. Its ability to boost legitimate trade and investment while dispelling concerns over dubious defence partnerships will indicate whether Raisi’s Africa strategy succeeds.
During his visit to Uganda, President Raisi solidified four Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs), focusing on areas such as visa exemptions, agricultural collaboration, and establishing a permanent joint committee. Additionally, his engagement extended substantially as Raisi expressed Iran’s preparedness to contribute expertise to Uganda’s planned 60,000 barrel-per-day oil refinery project. This significant development marks a noteworthy advancement for Uganda’s oil sector.
However, the significance of Raisi’s trip to Uganda transcends purely economic considerations, encompassing ideological dimensions. Raisi and Ugandan President Museveni converged in critiquing Western perspectives on LGBTQ rights. This was cemented as Raisi lauded Museveni’s recent enactment of legislation that mandates the death penalty for homosexual activities while simultaneously condemning Western nations for their association of homosexuality with societal advancement.
Moreover, Raisi’s Uganda visit was strategically employed to foster connections with local Muslim communities, aligning with Iran’s pursuit of religious soft power objectives. His interaction with Ugandan Muslims at the country’s largest mosque manifests Tehran’s efforts to promote Shiism in East Africa and extend support to Shiite minorities in Africa.
Iran seemingly views Uganda, with its modest Khoja Shiite population, as a potential epicentre for these initiatives within East Africa, especially given the predominance of Sunni Islam among Ugandan Muslims. Raisi’s visit to the mosque underscores Iran’s integration of strategic economic and political outreach with endeavours to cultivate ideological influence.
Yet, the endeavour to disseminate Shiism faces substantial challenges, given the prevailing Sunni presence and the close affiliations between African Muslim leaders and Sunni Gulf states. Raisi’s aspiration to position Iran as an advocate for African Muslims resonates with certain regimes on the continent, but the tangible ramifications of this religious stance appear somewhat limited at this juncture.
Establishing a collaborative and enduring commission between Iran and Zimbabwe signals a dedicated effort to fortify their political and trade relations. President Raisi’s reception in Zimbabwe was warm, a significant occurrence considering the country’s standing under U.S. sanctions and Iran’s aspirations for deeper ties.
Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa extended a fraternal welcome to Raisi, accentuating their shared stance by stating, “When you see him, you see me. When you see me, you see him.” This statement offers insights into the profound nature of the brotherly bond between the two nations.
A substantive outcome of the visit was Iran’s successful negotiation of 12 cooperation agreements with Zimbabwe, the highest tally achieved during the diplomatic mission. The scope of these memoranda is extensive, spanning domains such as agriculture, pharmaceuticals, telecommunications, gas, energy, education, and research. This comprehensive framework aligns with Iran’s strategic approach to economic outreach.
Among these understandings is an agreement for an Iranian enterprise to establish a tractor manufacturing facility collaboratively with a local Zimbabwean counterpart. Initial plans encompass the delivery of 200 Iranian tractors, followed by setting up a joint tractor production plant.
The effusive nature of President Raisi’s visit to Zimbabwe underscores Iran’s concerted effort to convey its steadfast commitment as a partner to African nations in their resistance against Western imperialism. In this context, Zimbabwe is a strategic platform for Iran to foster economic cooperation that circumvents sanctions. Nonetheless, the potential of this engagement remains limited.
While President Raisi achieved high-profile agreements in Harare, it is essential to recognise that Zimbabwe boasts a relatively modest economy and grapples with systemic governance challenges. The pivotal question that emerges is whether these agreements possess the capacity to alleviate Zimbabwe’s deeply entrenched economic woes. This outcome, however, will be contingent on the passage of time and the unfolding of events.
Opportunities and challenges
The recent diplomatic tour of Africa by President Raisi has shed light on the intricate diplomatic balancing that the continent must delicately navigate in response to Iran’s renewed push for engagement.
This juncture presents Africa with a unique opportunity to tap into technological advancements, prospective investment avenues, and expansive partnerships by deepening its ties with Iran. Nevertheless, it is paramount to acknowledge and dissect the potential hazards and drawbacks accompanying such a complex entanglement.
Foremost among these concerns is the inherent risk of overdependence on the Iranian economy. While grappling with the multifaceted ramifications of sanctions and internal challenges, even as Tehran endeavours to cultivate alliances with African nations to counter its international isolation, the durability and sustainability of resultant economic agreements over the long term remain shrouded in uncertainty.
The security implications of this diplomatic dance also warrant meticulous examination. Iran’s modus operandi in pursuing economic collaborations frequently intersects with its defence partnerships, encompassing the potential for arms trade. However, accepting Iranian military transfers could embroil African nations in Tehran’s ongoing regional rivalries, heightening local conflicts’ intensity.
The case of Kenya serves as a poignant exemplar of this intricate tightrope walk. President Raisi’s emphasis on the prospects of investment and technology cooperation, while promising, introduces the latent risk of unsettling Kenya’s established relationships with both Western allies and regional powerhouses. Notably, sceptical of Iran’s influence, Egypt and Saudi Arabia occupy the latter category.
Kenya’s potential dilemma lies in its risk of undermining its commitments to counterterrorism efforts by aligning itself with Iran, which stands accused of supporting terrorist groups such as Hezbollah. Consequently, Kenya’s navigation of this terrain must be carefully underpinned to safeguard its relationships and preserve its independent policy-making prerogatives.
Furthermore, the delicate tightrope African nations walk involves balancing their engagement with Iran vis-à-vis their ties with traditional Western partners. This intricate challenge beckons African states to adeptly reap the benefits of collaboration with Iran while adroitly avoiding the pitfall of alienating other pivotal global powers. On the grand chessboard of geopolitical influence, as Iran vies for ascendancy, it is incumbent upon African nations to assert their autonomy and resist being ensnared as mere pawns in the broader game of great power rivalry.
Iran’s outreach to Africa is a symbolic gesture that exploits perceptions of waning Western influence. A question worthy of asking is: Is this a cynical attempt to exploit the continent for its own gains?.
President Raisi’s African diplomacy has put Iran-Africa relations at a crossroads. Both sides have the potential to benefit from closer cooperation, but Iran must be careful not to alienate African nations with its rhetoric or actions. If Iran can build trust and demonstrate its commitment to mutually beneficial partnerships, it could become a more significant player in Africa. However, Iran must avoid missteps that could damage its reputation and undermine its efforts to build lasting relationships.