Iran in Africa: From Revolutionary Vision to Economic Alliances

Over the years, the presence of Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) in Africa, according to experts, is an ideological, economic and security issue based. Since 1979, Iran’s relations with countries from the Global South are to be understood not only within the framework of the Khomeinist ideological tenet of anti-imperialism but also in the context of exporting the Iranian politico-religious model. This ambition requires interfering in the internal affairs of African states to carry out missionary activities, but also to build networks of non-state actors, such as religious actors, cultural associations, and front-companies.

Africa is home to one-fifth of the world’s population and holds about 30 percent of the mineral reserves, 12 percent of the oil , eight percent of the natural gas reserves, and 50 percent of the world’s gold reserves. In 2023, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visited African nations to increase trade and economic ties. However, it’s a different approach for a country that, for years, has focused mostly on the Middle East and parts of Asia. Still faced with United States sanctions, it appears Tehran is now increasingly looking elsewhere to diversify its economy.

Over the years, the presence of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) in Africa, according to experts, has been an ideological, economic, and security issue. Since 1979, Iran’s relations with countries from the Global South are to be understood not only within the framework of the Khomeinist ideological tenet of anti-imperialism but also in the context of exporting the Iranian political-religious model. This ambition requires interfering in the internal affairs of African states to carry out missionary activities but also to build networks of non-state actors, such as religious actors, cultural associations, and front companies. The IRI has cultivated strong relations with several African countries; some are old, whereas others are new. Since the second half of the 20th century, Iran’s Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1941–1979), an ally of the United States, began to develop a strategy of influence towards Africa. In the midst of the Cold War, the objective was then twofold: to limit the spread of communism in Africa, hence political and financial support was provided to several African states (Sudan, Zaire, Somalia, Ethiopia, Senegal, and South Africa), and to strengthen Iran’s presence in the waters of the Gulf, the Indian Ocean, and even on the coasts of East Africa.

In history, Africa has not been high on Iran’s agenda. Under the Pahlavi regime, Iran had no presence there, except for relations with Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, the Apartheid regime in South Africa, the Moroccan monarchy, and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. These relations were part of the pro-U.S. bloc against the Soviet Union. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran severed ties with the Apartheid regime in South Africa, a move appreciated by the African National Congress when it came to power in 1994. Isolation was imposed on Iran during the recent decade as a consequence of its uranium enrichment program. Consequently, the Islamic Republic sought to expand its influence in Africa. Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made significant efforts to expand Tehran’s relations with African states. Those efforts were aimed at compensating for Iran’s deteriorating ties with its traditional economic partners in Europe and East Asia. Iran has been trying to assert its influence in Africa through high-level bilateral meetings and a network of relations with many African states. Ahmadinejad made more than six trips to countries in West Africa, gaining Iran observer status in the African Union. During his term in office (2005–2013), Ahmadinejad exerted efforts to establish an Iranian presence in Africa in order to offset Saudi influence there and elsewhere and to promote a South-South strategy in both Africa and Latin America.

Vision of the Iranian Revolutionary Political Elite

The IRI, which has faced sanctions and isolation since 1979, needs to have good relations with as many countries as possible. African countries, many of which are in need of economic assistance, which the IRI is happy to provide, are important to the IRI in order for it to break out of its economic and political isolation and to advance its own interests as far as possible. Moreover, most African countries are either underdeveloped or in the development stage, with a very young population. According to 2015 figures, 41% of the African population was under 15, and a further 19% were under 24. This population is seeking employment that their governments cannot fully provide for them, meaning external investment is the main source of employment opportunities. Investment and deeper involvement in Africa not only increase the IRI’s prestige and popularity among the local population but also meet the IRI’s economic interests as a market for its exports, bypassing economic sanctions. It also serves its nuclear program due to Africa’s rich uranium resources. This involvement also enhances the IRI’s Islamic worldview and broader global standing.

Furthermore, certain regions, such as the Horn of Africa and West Africa, provide the IRI with the opportunity to expand its logistical network and find alternative routes for financial, military, and material support to proxies and satellites in the Middle East, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza. Moreover, enhanced influence in Africa provides the IRI with another way to undermine its enemies’ interests. The arrest of two Iranians with a 33-pound cache of explosives in Kenya in 2012 on charges of gathering intelligence in order to plot attacks on United States, Israeli, Saudi, and British targets therein is a case in point, an expert said. This example shows that such activities are feasible, though, given the secrecy involved in such activities, it is difficult to ascertain their frequency.

Iran’s wider conservative camp believes Rouhani wasted too much time and energy focusing on the West and argues that the U.S. and Europe have continued to try to weaken the Islamic Republic. Traditionally, post-revolutionary Iran has seen the expansion of ties with non-Western countries as a means of counterbalancing pressures exerted by the West in the form of U.S.-led sanctions or military containment efforts. Tehran’s “look to the East” geopolitical orientation and efforts to boost ties with Asian powers such as China, Russia, and India have been identified by Iran’s leadership as a major way of counteracting such pressures. However, other parts of the world, most notably Africa and Latin America, are also part of this Iranian strategy to boost its economic and geopolitical clout by shifting its focus away from the West. Nevertheless, to keep threats against the Islamic Republic at a distance, Iran has designed a military doctrine and a foreign policy approach aiming to neutralize potential adversaries before they reach its shores. For this purpose, political and military leaders in Tehran have carefully sought to enhance the country’s strategic depth in regions of critical interest. This strategy has entailed both the strengthening of the country’s military capability and the cultivation of an extensive network of ties with a broad range of like-minded foreign partners, including state and non-state actors.

Renewing Alliances and Investing in Africa

In 2013, former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad toured three West African countries: Benin, Ghana, and Nigeria. Ten years later, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi pivoted his country in east and southern Africa by visiting Kenya, Uganda, and Zimbabwe—the first tour of Africa by an Iranian leader in over a decade. Such trips are highlights of the importance of diversifying economic interests and political relations, and they also form a wider part of a geopolitical strategy against the West that seeks to contain and further isolate a competing Iran. Observers said the official Iranian diplomatic stance sets very ambitious objectives for mutual Iranian-African cooperation.

Nevertheless, difficulties are apparent in carrying out economic cooperation projects, and tensions often emerge in relation to Iran’s ideological and security activities on the African continent. Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that it expects trade with African countries to increase to more than $2 billion in 2023, up from an estimated figure of between $500 million and $1 billion in 2021 and 2022. The official Iranian objective of increasing trade with the continent to $5 billion is extremely insignificant and inferior to the UAE’s $50 billion and Turkiye’s $35 billion trade with Africa, which has a $600 billion global trade. For Iran, Kenya is one of the largest importers of Iranian tea and also a potential market for Iranian pharmaceuticals and petrochemicals. Also, it is a strategic security partner competent in fighting terrorist activities with expertise in that dimension. To Zimbabwe, Iran is a key ally to enhance political coordination in international organizations like the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), share scientific and technological advances, and find new markets.

Meanwhile, Iranian authorities are deciding to invest in clusters of knowledge-based companies (known as Danesh Bonyan) and initiatives to circumvent sanctions. These companies are usually private organizations that seek to commercialize research results, particularly in medicine, food supply chain optimization, agricultural mechanization, and crop yield maximization. As these small businesses belong to the private sector and their field of work is related to humanitarian products, they are less vulnerable to sanctions. In the last two years, with the U.S. withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal and the EU unwilling to compensate Iran for its economic losses, the role of knowledge-based companies in circumventing sanctions has gained greater importance. As Africa is nearly an untapped market in these areas and many African countries rely on imported services in medicine, food, and agriculture, there is a unique opportunity for Iran to profit from meeting Africa’s needs. For instance, in January 2021, the Iran House of Innovation and Technology (iHit) opened in Kenya, and Tehran also aims to establish an economic zone in the country.

Moreover, in June 2021, a “specialized office for exporting Iranian biotechnological products” started operating in Uganda. Iran’s ambassador to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has stated that the second-largest African country will be Tehran’s next priority, inviting Iranian start-ups and knowledge-based companies to come to the DRC. Tehran University of Medical Sciences has signed an agreement with the African Health Development Center, located in Ghana, to cooperate in the field of medical nanotechnology. And referring to a grant of €200 million ($235 million) to support exports to Africa, Farzad Piltan, the director-general of the Iranian Trade Promotion Organization’s Office of Arabian and African Countries, said, “In a three-year plan, we will increase Iran’s exports to the continent to $1.1 billion.” These recent developments are a clear sign of the re-emergence of Iran’s Africa strategy and its efforts to boost its economic ties with the continent.


Lately, Iran sent exploding drones and ballistic missiles to Israel, marking the first direct attack on Tehran’s old-time enemy, even though the two had targeted each other via proxies. And while various leaders have spoken, either to condemn or urge escalation on the issue across the world, the continental bloc, the African Union, is keeping a pass. For Africa, the policy toward Israel is never static, and several African countries have close trade and economic partnerships with Iran and Israel, which will be impacted.

Temporarily, Iran will seek to take the lead in the region’s underlying abrasions to find some entry points and retain some impact over its geopolitical expansions. As more African countries anticipate joining China, Iran, and Russia under the BRICS bloc, the Western world is watching with great curiosity and apprehension, anticipating how the BRICS and strategically placed Africa will reshape global politics and challenge the existing power dynamics. It is expected that Iranian diplomacy in Africa will intensify in the coming years, despite the accusations Tehran faces, including terrorism. These expectations and perspectives are the result of the fact that Africa represents a priority for Iran and occupies a special place to threaten Western interests.

Writer and researcher at Alafarika for Studies and Consultancy.

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