I was asked by World Politics Review to post some introductory thoughts on Iran's political and economic manoeuvres with African states. WPR, which operates a subscription service, has given us permission to re-print the article --- readers can also get a free trial of the material on the site.
As this is only an introduction to the topic, I would be pleased to have comments and feedback from readers:
Iran announced last month that it would send aid to Malawi, shortly following cuts in aid to the Southeast African country by the U.S. and the U.K. In an email interview, Scott Lucas, an expert on Iran at the University of Birmingham, discussed Iran-Africa relations.
WPR: What is the current state of Iran's development aid and investment in Africa?
Scott Lucas: Iran has continued, despite -- and arguably because of -- international sanctions, to make a significant effort to further its diplomatic and economic ties with African countries. High-ranking Iranian officials, including the foreign minister, have toured the continent, and, after the immediate furor over the disputed 2009 presidential election died down, African leaders came to Tehran. For example, Senegalese President Abdullah Wade, then chair of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, visited Iran in October 2009, where he met with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Ahmadinejad used a visit by former Malian President Alpha Oumar Konare in June to propose a joint Iran-Africa development fund. Tehran sent $50 million to Malawi in July for mining projects. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, after a discussion with his Beninese counterpart, declared in August, "The policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran is to expand relations with Africa." The two countries also signed a number of agreements, including one to establish a joint economic and cultural commission. And in recent days, Iranian politicians and clerics have emphasized Tehran's willingness to address drought-hit Somalia.
WPR: What are the main sectors and countries that Iran is investing in?
Lucas: Iran is pursuing initiatives and possibilities with a range of countries, but it has been particularly active in the past two years with Senegal, Nigeria and Sudan. Khodro, Iran's largest car manufacturer, opened an assembly line in Senegal in 2007. Iran has agreed to share nuclear technology with Nigeria for the production of electricity, and it has an agreement on military cooperation with Sudan.
There have been complications in these efforts. Last November, Gambia severed ties with Iran after Nigeria said it had intercepted an illegal arms shipment in Lagos from Iran, apparently destined for a faction pursuing power in Africa's smallest country.
WPR: To what extent are Iran's ties in Africa an effort to get around Tehran's international isolation, and to what extent are they impacted by that isolation?
Lucas: I think it is important not to tie Iran interests in Africa too closely to sanctions and conflict with the West. Even if there were no sanctions, Iran would certainly be making an effort to use aid and development to pursue trade and investment opportunities.
It is also important to note that Iran has been pursuing a strategy of diversifying its areas of interest since the early 1990s. The Caspian Sea and its resources are a prominent example, and one can also see Iran looking for links and possibilities in Latin America. Africa, with great potential for return on economic and political initiatives, fits that strategy.
Of course, this strategy will intersect Iran's concerns over isolation and sanctions. In this vein, Ahmadinejad has pursued a public effort to establish a bloc on issues from reform of the U.N. to nonproliferation and also the "triangulation" of relations between Africa and countries like the U.K. and Turkey.