From the reception ceremony for the Iranian President at Harare Airport in the capital of Zimbabwe last summer (Reuters - Archive)

East Africa occupied a central place in Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi's African tour in July 2023, as his plane landed in Kenya and Uganda before heading towards its final stop in Zimbabwe, in the first tour of its kind by an Iranian president in more than 10 years.

These visits represented a resumption of Tehran's strategy of expanding its relations with the countries of the Global South, which reached its peak during the era of former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013), then returned to the forefront with Ebrahim Raisi, who was announced only days after taking office in August 2021. The priority of developing his country’s relations with Africa, stressing his orientation towards activating all possibilities for cooperation with the countries of the continent.

Multidimensional importance

The East African region has strategic advantages that are attractive to Tehran as a result of the potential profits from political and economic cooperation, given its natural resources and rapidly growing economic market, in addition to its strategic location controlling the Bab al-Mandab Strait overlooking the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean.

This importance has been increased by the fact that the region has become a corridor for weapons sent from Iran to its allies, especially with the rise of the role of the Houthis in Yemen, where reports indicate cooperation between Tehran with groups in Somalia to deliver supplies to Yemen, and earlier Sudan was a major crossing point for Iranian weapons destined for... Gaza.

An official reception for the Iranian President in Uganda (Reuters - Archive)

Intensifying diplomatic activity

A report issued by the Soufan Center for Security Studies explains that Raisi’s tour in East Africa aimed to mitigate the effects of Tehran’s economic and political isolation from the Western system, and to build new alliances that would enable it to confront European and American pressures related to its nuclear program, which increased with Western confirmations of Iran’s support for Russia. In its war in Ukraine, which Tehran has always denied.

In this context, Iranian diplomacy worked to expand its activities early, as the percentage of Iranian embassies in East Africa reached 40% of the foreign representations opened during the Ahmadinejad era. Tehran also worked to revive diplomatic relations with countries that had severed them in solidarity with Saudi Arabia during its crisis with Tehran. The latter was able to restore its relations with Djibouti and Sudan in 2023.

These diplomatic efforts were translated into Tehran's ability to gain support for its nuclear program from some countries in the region, such as Eritrea and Sudan, while Ethiopia reiterated its support for the nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 group.

A paper issued by the German Institute for Area Studies monitors the effects of Iranian diplomatic efforts by analyzing the voting pattern of African countries at the United Nations on issues related to Tehran between 2005 and 2022, concluding that many of these countries - including those located in East Africa - remained neutral. Or supportive of Iran in its vote on UN resolutions related to human rights.

The Iranian President during his visit to the Iranian Innovation and Technology Office in the Ugandan capital, Kampala (Reuters - Archive)

Expanding the “geography of resistance”

The Iranian trend towards Africa in general appears to be driven by a group of factors, the most important of which is extending its influence outside the Middle East, especially in the regions surrounding it, and ensuring its expansion of the fronts of the “geography of resistance.”

An article published in the "Tasnim" agency, which is close to the Revolutionary Guard - following the assassination of Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani in 2020 - confirmed that the Corps's ability to make Africa part of Iran's strategic depth will give Tehran the opportunity to direct strikes against Washington there.

In this context, local media announced the arrest of security agents affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in countries such as Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya on charges of planning to target Israeli and American interests in East Africa between 2019 and 2023.

Receiving the Iranian President in Kenya (Reuters - Archive)

Contain the influence of regional competitors

On the other hand, the Iranian strategy aims to contain the influence of its regional competitors - such as Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE - who have been able to achieve major breakthroughs in East Africa.

For example, Turkey is one of the most important players in the Horn of Africa, and according to an official in the Ethiopian Investment Authority, Turkey is the second largest investor in his country with an investment capital of $2.5 billion, while Somalia is the backbone of Turkish influence in the region by hosting the only Turkish military base. In Africa.

Defense cooperation

Cooperation in the security and military aspects represented an important part of Iran’s strategy towards East Africa, as it concluded defense cooperation agreements that include knowledge transfer, training, modernization of the military infrastructure, and maritime cooperation.

A study issued by the German Institute for Area Studies monitors the defense agreements concluded by Tehran with African countries between 2002 and 2017, concluding that more than half of these agreements were concluded with countries from the east of the continent, such as Sudan, Tanzania, Djibouti, and the Comoros.

Observers believe that Tehran wants to promote its military capabilities to African countries (Reuters - Archive)

Drone diplomacy

During his visit to the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, in 2023, Raisi participated in an exhibition held by Iranian companies for non-combat drones, which led observers to consider this a desire by Tehran to enter the African arms market through Kenya, and to promote its military capabilities in a region suffering from severe security disturbances.

In the same context, and with the escalation of the Tigray war in Ethiopia (2020-2022), several sources spoke of Iranian military support for the Ethiopian government. In a letter to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, the Debreans accused Gebre Michael, leader of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, of supporting the Ethiopian army with weapons that included aircraft. march.

This strategic step in East Africa indicates the importance that Tehran attaches to cooperation with Ethiopia as a pivotal country in its region, in addition to its desire to seize the opportunity of the sharp Ethiopian-Western tension against the backdrop of the war in Tigray to undermine relations between the two historical partners, in addition to competing with its regional opponents, such as Turkey. Which exported its drones to Addis Ababa, and Israel, which imposed restrictions on the export of some types of weapons to its African ally.

Economic cooperation

The economy occupies an important aspect in the relations that Tehran is forging with East Africa, and this is evident in the announcement of the Director General of the Africa Department of the “Iran Trade Promotion Organization” about the opening of 8 commercial centers on the continent between 2022 and 2023, 3 of which are in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda.

On the other hand, figures issued by the “Iranian and African Merchants Club” in 2023 indicate that out of 49 African countries, Sudan, Kenya and Mozambique were among the countries that imported most Iranian goods in 2022, while Kenya and Tanzania topped the list of African countries exporting goods to Iran in Same year.

During his African tour, Raisi signed economic agreements with Kenya and Uganda, as Iran intends to establish a factory for Iranian vehicles in Mombasa, Kenya, while Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni confirmed that his country will communicate with Iran to benefit from its experience to develop the energy sector by transferring technology or financing projects.

From the reception ceremony for the Iranian President in Zimbabwe (Reuters - Archive)

Circumventing sanctions

In the face of economic sanctions, a paper issued by Iranian researcher Amin Naeini monitors Tehran’s resort to investing in knowledge-based companies, as these institutions work to market the results of scientific research, especially in the medical and agricultural fields that the countries of the continent need, and given that they are affiliated with the private sector and linked to the private sector. In their work with humanitarian products, the risk of these institutions being subject to sanctions remains low.

In this context, 2020 witnessed the opening of the “Iranian House of Innovation and Technology (IHIT)” in Kenya, which describes itself as a platform for the flourishing of Iranian knowledge-based companies, startups, creative industries and the commercialization of ideas.

In the same year, Tehran's ambassador to Nairobi also announced his country's desire to establish an economic zone in Kenya that would provide investors with the opportunity to produce and export from Kenyan territory, which would free them from being subject to the sanctions imposed on Tehran.

In Uganda, an office was opened to export Iranian biotechnology products in 2021. In the first phase, the project included the opening of a model farm to test different types of seeds and fertilizers for 8 Iranian companies, in a step towards expanding this sector to include all of East Africa.

Aspirations and obstacles

The Houthi attacks on Israeli interests highlighted the extreme importance of the areas near vital water crossings, including East Africa, which suggests the escalation of Iran’s ambitions related to expanding its presence in the region.

But many obstacles will stand in its way, as the negative impact of sanctions on the Iranian economy is highlighted, which was one of the factors in Tehran's inability to keep up with the strategies of its regional and international opponents in the African continent.

Also, Tehran’s efforts to spread Shiism - according to official statements - is still another obstacle to its progress in many places. Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud had previously announced in January 2023 that his country’s intelligence had monitored Iranian movements to spread Shiism through charitable institutions during his term. The first presidential term ended in 2017, which prompted him to close the Tehran embassy and ban the activities of those institutions until now.

On the other hand, some indicators confirm that the post-war period in Gaza will witness a Western and Israeli escalation to besiege Tehran and prevent it from expanding its spheres of influence abroad, including East Africa, which will affect the positions of the countries of the region regarding cooperation with Iran.

Source: Al Jazeera