Iran has moved into the consciousness of many, and around the dominance of states like the United States (US) and China, to project its ambition for cooperation with African states. Against the backdrop of Iran’s label as a ‘rogue state’ in the international arena, its ambition to support African states is noteworthy.(2) Depending on which side this ambition is looked at from, it may be perceived as an opportunity or as a threat. From an African perspective for example, Afro-Iranian cooperation may be viewed in light of developmental partnership. Alternatively, Afro-Iranian cooperation could be seen from a Western standpoint as allegiance formation against the West. Nevertheless, stating the intention to cooperate may be nothing more than political rhetoric, as history has repeatedly shown how political leaders pledge to carry out objectives, but fail to follow through with them.
This discussion paper focuses on the possibility of Afro-Iranian cooperation, as stipulated by both the leaders of Iran and the African Union (AU). It firstly sets out to discuss the roles of Africa and Iran in the contemporary global order. Iran and Africa’s roles in the global order are especially pertinent, when viewed in light of the motivation for Iran and Africa to cooperate. This is premised on the fact that their global positions for example, potentially influence their individual policy objectives. Furthermore, it aims to establish the interplay of factors that could contribute to the actualisation of cooperation between Africa and Iran.
Â Africa and Iran in the contemporary global order
The murkiness surrounding Iran’s nuclear abilities and Tehran’s aversion to Western affiliation are dual factors contributing to Iran’s branding as a pariah in the global arena.(3) This in turn, has had a negative effect on Iran’s decision-making role and influence in the international sphere. Conversely, while many sub-Saharan African states could welcome the chance to play a more active role in a Western-centric world, their participation in the global arena is minimised primarily due to economic constraints. In North Africa however, economic factors are less responsible for the sub-region’s minimal participation. A less dominant global role in this sub-region may instead be explained by an orientation towards the policies of the Middle East, which is not fundamentally aligned with the dominant global standpoint.
Despite the marginalisation of Iran in the contemporary global order, the state remains a force to be reckoned with, as far as its nuclear programme is concerned. This is predominantly due to the security threat it is perceived to pose. Likewise, despite the restriction of Africa’s full-scale participation, Africa’s role in the global order is intrinsically linked to its position as a component of the developing world, in an anarchic international system. The anarchic nature of the global system implies the absence of a central Government to ensure that Africa’s widespread socioeconomic needs are met. This has resulted in Africa’s relations with other members of the global community being comprised of developmental cooperatives.
Iran and Africa in strategic alliance
For Iran, being on the ‘wrong’ side of the US’ alliance signifies a need to expand its reach, in order to increase its global support and consecutively diminish global support for the West. Having been sidelined in the global arena, Iran’s alliance with Africa partly stems from the need to gain prominence in global affairs.(4) In meeting the developmental needs of African states, Iran would be in pursuit of its aspiration for hegemonic status.(5) This is because with the opening created by its economic support for Africa, Iran is strategically positioned to discourage Western ‘exploitation’ of Africa’s resources, as well as Western prominence in Africa.(6)
Beyond Iran’s power ambition, its rationale for cooperation with Africa is rooted in religious footings. Exploring ties with Muslim states in Africa would advance Iran’s Islamic intentions for Africa and eventually the world. Its investments in Senegal, Sudan and Nigeria are plausibly rooted in the strengthening of its relations with Islamic nations and those with substantial Islamic populations.(7) This would assist in furthering the Islamic revolution, which provides an Islamic alternative to Western beliefs.(8) Tehran’s economic backing of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza may be viewed in line with opposing Western preponderance and upholding the Islamic revolution.(9)
African opposition to the West exists on a smaller scale than is apparent in Iran. For Africans, their disgruntlement is primary moulded by the history of colonialism and the imperialist traits that continue to feature in relations between Africa and the West. It therefore significantly differs from the roots of Iranian discontentment with the West, which may be linked to Iran’s Islamic and hegemonic notions. More so, anti-Western sentiments in Africa are found in varying degrees. While states such as Libya and Zimbabwe have been clear on their stances against Western ideology, anti-Western sentiments are less evident among states such as South Africa and Kenya. As a result, while the anti-Western ideology should not be ruled out as a motivator for African cooperation with Iran, it would not be the sole reason.
The economic benefits Africa stands to gain from partnering with Iran and vice versa also cannot be ignored in any evaluation of this strategic relationship. This is firstly due to the fact that Iran’s economy has been negatively impacted by the trade and economic sanctions imposed by the US. Iran’s economic isolation in an increasingly globalised world has proven to be harmful to its economic position and hegemonic ambitions. As part of its efforts to boost Afro-Iranian cooperation, Iran is already a leading importer of Kenyan tea, which serves both Kenyan and Iranian economic interests.(10) African states similarly, would be interested in a strategic alliance with Iran, due to the economic benefits it could acquire. The Islamic Republic for example, has already begun investments in the energy and infrastructural segments of Kenya’s economy.(11) Iran’s nuclear capability would be crucial in this regard, as the creation of energy diversity for Kenya and other states in Africa, would serve as economic boosts for Iran and Africa. Some of the other economic sectors targeted for Afro-Iranian cooperation are tourism, agriculture, technology, mining, health and sanitation.(12)
African leaders’ reception of anti-Western influence is likely to be mixed due to their varied sentiments towards the West. The economic rewards of Afro-Iranian cooperation would, however, be welcome in Africa and could be the leading incentive for African leaders to cooperate with Iran. Due to their mutual incentive for cooperation plus opportunity, the motive exists for Iran to partner with African states. Mutual incentives for partnership partly stem from the ideological narratives of Africa and Iran, which posses some measure of similarity and could serve as the basis for achieving shared goals. Because the US and Europe have yet to fully meet Africa’s developmental needs, Iran’s strategy in contending for influence could realise Afro-Iranian cooperation, in the hope that Iran is more successful than the US or Europe has been in this regard.(13)
While history illustrates the failure of leaders to deliver on their pledges towards cooperation, Afro-Iranian cooperation is plausible, due to the factors already discussed. Moreover, Iran’s relations with Africa have already become evident, with the adoption of Iran as an observer AU member.(14) This inclusion reveals Africa’s willingness to cooperate with Iran on both political and economic levels. The prioritisation afforded to Iran through this, is an indication of prospects for deeper partnership in the future.
(1) Contact Uyo Salifu through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Africa Watch Unit (
(2) ‘Iran ‘rogue state’ threat says Blair’, Gulf Daily News, 30 January 2010, http://www.gulf-daily-news.com.
(3) Fareed Zakaria, ‘Containing a nuclear Iran’, News Week, 03 October 2009, http://www.newsweek.com.
(4) Chiponda Chimbelu, ‘Iran makes inroads in parts of Africa’, World Deutsche Welle, 28 February 2010,
(5) Jamsheed Choksy, ‘Take seriously Iran's global ambitions’, The Daily Star, 27 September 2010, http://www.dailystar.com.lb.
(6) Wangui Kanina, ‘Iran urges Africa to reject Western exploitation’, Reuters, 25 February 2009, http://uk.reuters.com.
(7) ‘Iran’s activity in East Africa, the gateway to the Middle East and the African continent’, Intelligence and Terrorism Information Centre, 29 July 2009, http://www.terrorism-info.org.il.
(9) Jamsheed Choksy, ‘Take seriously Iran's global ambitions’, The Daily Star, 27 September 2010, http://www.dailystar.com.lb.
(10) Wangui Kanina, ‘Iran urges Africa to reject Western exploitation’, Reuters, 25 February 2009, http://uk.reuters.com.
(12) ‘Africa is Iran’s land of opportunities’, Tehran Times, 16 September 2010, http://www.tehrantimes.com.
(13) Michael Rubin, ‘Iran’s global ambition’, Middle East Forum, 17 March 2008, http://www.meforum.org.
(14) ‘Cooperation with Africa is Iran’s strategic goal’, Tehran Times, 3 February 2010, http://www.tehrantimes.com.