With a special focus on Syria and Iran’s role in this important country’s developments, it is worth noting Tehran also seeks to expand its influence in Africa.
Iran is spending billions in this continent, providing free social services through a vast network of hospitals and orphanages, running more than one hundred Islamic schools and seminaries, and giving bribes and “financial aid” to corrupt governments.
Exporting its reactionary ideology among Africa’s vast Muslim community, paving the path for terrorist activities, sending weapons to the Middle East, obtaining access to natural uranium, bypassing sanctions and arms/nuclear purchases comprise Tehran’s main objectives.
Strict action by the international community is needed to bring an end to such measures by Iran, especially when millions are living in poverty across the country.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tore the ribbons of a new hospital in Uganda back in November 2017, all built with Iranian money. An “Iran Clinic” has also become a renowned facility in Zimbabwe.
This is only a small portion of Tehran’s “support” for Africa, all funneled through the Iranian Red Crescent that runs clinics in 12 different countries.
Iran’s Africa initiative is not limited to medical services, as such measures provide a front cover to a variety of other activities considered vital and strategic for Tehran’s long-term goals.
One of Iran’s most important objectives in Africa is expanding its reactionary ideology among this continent’s millions of Muslims. Through such measures Tehran seeks to expand its influence in this branch of the world of Islam.
We must first understand such activities are rooted in the Iranian regime’s desperate need to maintain its rule and not a sign of its strength or expanding influence. Iran’s clerical rulers have a dwindling social base and such efforts are needed to lift their spirits in times of increasing crises across the board.
Africa is home to more than 1.2 billion people, half of which are Muslim. Most of this population lives in northern Africa, including Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria. Yet considering the long experience the government of these countries have with radical Islam, they are continuously preventing Tehran’s activities on their soil.
As a result, Iran is focusing on small minority Muslim communities in Sub Saharan states. Their majority are Sunni and five to ten percent of them are Shiites. Iran’s Organization of Islamic Culture and Communications, affiliated to the Ministry of Guidance, is active through the regime’s embassies in various countries, constructing dozens of mosques and Islamic centers.
Tehran’s regime is also placing increasing effort to train African clerics and pro-Tehran ideologues in Islamic schools and seminaries in Iran and various African countries. The main campuses of Al Mustafa University, under the direct supervision of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and are in Qom, central Iran.
Al Mustafa has branches in more than 60 countries across the globe and is currently teaching over 40,000 foreign clerics. From 2007 to this day over 45,000 foreign students inside Iran and abroad have graduated from the University.
This entity has main branches in 17 African countries. This goes alongside secondary activities in 30 countries, providing a total of more than 100 schools and Islamic centers. Currently, more than 6,000 African clerical students are studying in Al Mustafa branches inside Iran and various African branches.
Some of these students, along with their families, enjoy free education, health insurance and financial support. The children of these cleric students go to special schools to learn the Iranian regime’s reactionary ideology at an early stage in life.
Terrorism & arms transfers
Iran also considers Africa a springboard to send missiles and other arms to its affiliated terrorists groups, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine. The Iranian regime’s main ally in this regard was Sudan’s Omar Al Bashir who, in return for cash and financial aid, permitted Tehran to establish military bases and arms factories on his country’s soil.
This trend continued until October 2012 when Israeli warplanes attacked an important Iran-associated arms and missile factory in the city of Yarmouk. Al Bashir discontinued his relations with Iran in June 2016, allying with Saudi Arabia instead.
Djibouti, located west of Yemen and Saudi Arabia, was another Tehran ally. By spending tens of millions of dollars on the Djibouti Parliament building and a trade center, Iran received access to the country’s ports.
Through Djibouti Iran was able to provide arms for the Houthis in Yemen and Djibouti is also located very near Bab Al Mandab, a strategic waterway connecting the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden. Tehran used this route to send arms to the Gaza Strip and US or Israeli navies would routinely confiscate their ships and boats carrying such cargo. Djibouti, too, has become a Saudi ally in recent years and closed all bases affiliated to Tehran.
Nigerian authorities have repeatedly seized arms caches of Iran-made ordnance, preventing their transfer to Palestine and other African militia groups. African authorities have also consistently discovered, arrested and prosecuted members of terror cells associated to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Quds Force.
On the other hand, the Lebanese Hezbollah is expanding its influence amongst Shiite migrants from the Middle East in various African countries. By launching dozens of companies and religious/trade institutions, Hezbollah has established an extensive money-laundering network in Africa, especially across the western regions of this continent.
This enterprise procures a large amount of financial revenue for Hezbollah and Iran’s terrorism. We should also remember how Obama’s appeasement provided cover for such activities. Hezbollah’s networks are also in collaboration with Latin American drug cartels, according to official US and European officials, using West African countries to whitewash their narcotics profits.
Iran’s controversial nuclear program comes with its dilemmas for Tehran. Having access to natural uranium is one such issue considering its own resources being very dismal.
By providing financial concessions, Iran was able to invest in the uranium mines of Namibia and Malawi. The country of Niger also owns uranium mines, prompting former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to pay a visit during his term, followed by Zarif in 2017.
Iran also provided many financial concessions to Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, only to now face new obstacles after he was forced to step aside at the end of 2017.
Politics & sanctions
Gaining votes and political support from African nations in the United Nations and other international organizations is another parallel objective for Iran. Last year, Iranian Foreign Ministry officials emphasized on this very vital matter, especially during Zarif’s tour of the continent.
Bypassing sanctions is yet another important target in Iran’s warming relations with Africa. For example, Ghana was one of the main sources of gold for Tehran in 2011 and 2013 when the regime was laundering money by importing gold through Babak Zanjani, an oil tycoon, and Reza Zarrab, a notorious businessman.
Iran’s expanded relations with South Africa by providing a large portion of the IranCell consortium, a communications accord involving South Africa’s MTN, Iran’s Mostazafan Foundation and the Iran Electronic Industries Company, associated to Iran’s Defense Ministry.
South Africa voted in favor of Iran many times in the UN and different international circles. Documents and evidence also show Johannesburg promised to provide state-of-the-art radars, communications devices and advanced helicopter equipment for Iran.
By spending billions of dollars of the Iranian people’s money, Tehran’s regime now enjoys widespread influence in Africa. The management of more than 100 religious sanctuary and Islamic schools, attempting to obtain nuclear and military technology, bypassing sanctions, establishing terrorist networks and transferring arms to the Middle East, are all pieces of this puzzle.
None of these measures are in the Iranian people’s interest and Tehran seeks to expand its fundamentalism and obtain control over the Islamic World. As the West is coming to realize the necessity to end Iran’s malign influence in the Middle East, similar measures by Tehran in Africa demand our attention.
Disclaimer - This author is writing under a pseudonym to protect his identity.