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Africa: The Next Target on Iran’s Power Politics Bucket List?

Image: Iranian Military Photo Handout.

For those who follow Iran’s activity in Africa, the information coming from Addis Ababa regarding the possible use of Iranian drones amid Ethiopia’s new military campaign against the Tigray is not surprising. According to some reports in October, as many as 50 cargo flights bearing arms have landed in Ethiopia from the United Arab Emirates and Iran over a period of two months. The US Treasury Department confirmed recently that Iran’s Quds Force has been proliferating such drones for use in Ethiopia.

Historically, Iran’s bid for influence on the African continent since the 1979 Islamic Revolution has been an uphill struggle as Tehran had no significant historical footprint in Africa due to the predominance of Sunni and Sufi forms of Islam among African Muslims. Nevertheless, Iran has created an infrastructure of mosques, cultural centers, charitable networks, and educational institutions which have served to spread its revolutionary ethos to Africa.

Africa has been designated as one of the main targets for Tehran as it looks to expand its influence beyond the Middle East. The presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-13) was a turning point in Iran’s engagement on the continent, as Tehran deepened its ties with African countries, particularly sub-Saharan ones. But African countries, due to pressure from the West, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, demonstrated a strong disinclination to expand their strategic ties with Iran. This illustrates the gap between Africa’s real potential for Iran and what Tehran envisions.

Ebrahim Raisi’s ascendance as president indicates that the Iranian establishment is seeking to refresh the Africa playbook it adopted under the Ahmadinejad administration. Unlike President Hassan Rouhani whose administration sought to use the Iran nuclear deal as the centerpiece of efforts to deepen ties with the West, Raisi, along with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), are likely to focus more time on exporting the Islamic Revolution in Africa. Moreover, Iran’s new Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian used to serve as the deputy foreign minister for Arab and African Affairs, and he is, as his president, eager to promote these relations.

On top of that dynamic, the Iranian system may look to Africa as a place to achieve its strategic goals—particularly the implementation of a resistance economy to neutralize sanctions—and signal to the international and particularly domestic audiences that it has alternatives. This is connected to Tehran’s own pivot to Asia, as the regime will try to minimize any Iranian dependence on the West.

As in the Ethiopian case, Iran is expected to increase its arms sales to Africa, especially after the expiration of the arms embargo under UN Security Council Resolution 2231. It will use such practices as a platform to expand its influence on the continent. Ethiopia is probably not the only country that is an export market for the Iranian military industry—Iranian arms have been spotted in Somalia as well. Iran is also likely to increase the number of high-ranking officials visiting Africa and will try to promote economic projects to further bypass sanctions imposed by the United States. It is also possible that both Tehran and Beijing will work together to minimize US influence in Africa.

Iran’s pivot to Africa is not just economic in nature. Tehran sees the continent as a launchpad for targeting US and Israeli interests. Increased Iranian operations in Africa started after the death of former IRGC Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani. In January 2020, the head of US Africa Command told Congress that intelligence reports indicated Iran was planning attacks on Americans in Africa to avenge Soleimani’s demise. This threat burst into the public spotlight in September 2020, with news that Iran was weighing a plot to assassinate the then US ambassador to South Africa Lana Marks. Indeed, as of April 2021, US Africa Command warned that “Iran is increasingly active on the continent.”

Earlier this year came news that Ethiopia’s intelligence agency had thwarted an Iranian terrorist cell casing the embassy of the United Arab Emirates there, having “activated a sleeper cell in Addis Ababa last fall with orders to gather intelligence also on the embassies of the United States and Israel,” according to The New York Times. Another cohort was seeking to target the Emirati embassy in Sudan. The Economist last year also reported, citing a western intelligence source, that police in Niger arrested an operative who admitted working for the IRGC’s Quds Force Unit 400, having been recruited during a pilgrimage to Iran, where he also received arms training. He built networks in the Central African Republic (CAR), Chad, Eritrea, Gambia, Sudan, and South Sudan, and coupled this activity with attempts to “seek mining licenses in the CAR and Niger to help offset the impact of American sanctions on Iran and to fund covert operations,” according to The Economist. Tehran may seek to employ this modus operandi—of arms exports and sanctions neutralization coupled with terror—more aggressively in the coming years.

Thus, the Iranian leadership, especially with the elevation of Ebrahim Raisi as president, will seek to increase its footprint in Africa—through economic and military partnerships, and with plots to attack US interests. This is part of the new policy being implemented by the Raisi administration, especially as the Iranian system seeks to pivot to non-western countries. In the eyes of Tehran, this approach is an important tool in the Iranian toolkit aiming to counter western dominance using an African strategic depth.

Iran will probably duplicate the way it works in the Middle East in Africa. Meaning, it will work with local forces and use them as proxies or partners to promote Iranian interests, like the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) or the Polisario in Western Sahara. There is also a possibility that Iran will try to prevent other countries in Africa from improving their relations with Israel, by arming and funding insurgent movements.

It will be imperative for the United States to work closely with its partners in Africa to block any Iranian attempt to fulfill its interests and severely punish those countries cooperating with Tehran. Expanding the Abraham Accords to include more countries in Africa—aside from Morocco and Sudan—like Niger will be important in this regard. By doing so, the Biden administration and Israel can work together to thwart Iranian influence on the continent.

Danny Citrinowicz is a senior research fellow at the Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy in Israel and served for 25 years in a variety of command position units in Israel Defense Intelligence (IDI). Jason M. Brodsky is policy director at United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI).