On Feb. 22, 2022, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi (2021-present) met with his counterpart from Mozambique, Filipe Nyusi. During the meeting, Raisi expressed his readiness to expand economic and trade cooperation with Mozambique and other African countries, as well as to provide them with greater technology transfer and technical knowledge. Raisi claimed that the Islamic Republic “always had good relations with African countries,” and acknowledged their economic potential, human capital, and natural resources. With respect to the latter, and seeking to find common cause with post-colonial Africa, Raisi condemned the plundering of Iran’s rich resources by the West during the past few centuries — a theme that Raisi’s predecessors had also stressed in their rhetoric regarding the continent.
Since the beginning of his presidency, Raisi has called for increasing cooperation with Africa and recognized its material and manpower capabilities. As early as his third day in office on Aug. 6, 2021, Raisi delivered the same message while meeting with the speaker of Guinea-Bissau’s National Assembly, Cipriano Cassamá, who criticized U.S. sanctions against Iran. On Jan. 24, 2022, Raisi issued similar statements during his meeting with the Togolese foreign minister, Robert Dussey, who also opposed the sanctions. At both meetings and like his predecessors, Raisi condemned the exploitation of the continent’s resources by the West and claimed that Iran served as a true friend and real partner in helping it achieve welfare, development, independence, and progress.
Contrary to popular perception, Raisi’s meetings and statements with African officials were not part of a hegemonic project to further expand Iranian influence in Africa. Rather, they constituted an effort to reset relations with the continent after his predecessor, Hassan Rouhani (2013-21), spent eight years neglecting it while pursuing rapprochement with the West (the United States and Western Europe) and later the East (China and Russia). So far, Raisi has only met with officials from countries of second- and third-tier commercial importance in terms of bilateral trade, though they have other historical, diplomatic, and strategic significance. Beyond rhetoric, the question remains whether he will differentiate himself from his predecessor in practice by prioritizing Africa and restoring relations with longtime allies and top trading partners that severed ties with Iran in 2016.
Far from furthering Iran’s hegemonic and expansionist ambitions on the continent, Raisi’s meetings and statements with African officials could be accurately interpreted as an attempt to reset relations after his predecessor consistently neglected them. For this reason, during his meeting with Guinea-Bissau’s speaker of parliament in August 2021, Raisi emphasized that strengthening relations would be a foreign policy priority for the Islamic Republic and that “in the new government, all the capacities for cooperation with African countries will be seriously activated.”
Rhetorically, Raisi did not differentiate himself from Rouhani. In his statements and speeches, Rouhani repeatedly referred to Africa as a “top priority” and called for strengthening political, economic, and cultural relations. However, he dedicated little effort to implementing these policies in practice, as evidenced by his lack of official visits to Africa and by Iran’s low levels of trade with the continent. Despite his favorable discourse, Rouhani neglected Africa to prioritize détente and rapprochement with the West, culminating with the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015 and the partial sanctions relief that accompanied it in 2016.
Rouhani’s neglect of Africa was reflected in his lack of official visits to the continent. As of 2020, Rouhani had visited over 55 different countries in Europe, Asia, and America. The focus of these visits was to expand the Islamic Republic’s economic and trade relations within the framework of the JCPOA, and to maintain and salvage these relations after the United States withdrew from it and reimposed sanctions in 2018. Even after this happened and contrary to his predecessors, Rouhani exclusively turned his attention to the East and continued to neglect Africa and the South, with the aim of circumventing sanctions and alleviating pressure. Rouhani never traveled to Africa and rarely invited its officials to Iran. During his presidency, only three African presidents (from Ghana, South Africa, and Zimbabwe) visited Iran, but only after the JCPOA was signed and the sanctions partially lifted in 2016 and 2017. Rouhani declined invitations to these countries and his reluctance to visit Africa was unusual given that all of his predecessors, starting with Ali Khamenei (1981-89), had done so at least twice.
Rouhani’s inattention to Africa was also a reflection of the Islamic Republic’s low levels of trade with the continent. During his presidency between 2014 and 2018, Iran’s trade with Sub-Saharan Africa as a percentage of its total trade reached a nadir of 0.19% in 2015 and never exceeded 1%, even after the signing of the JCPOA and the subsequent sanctions relief. By contrast, under the previous president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-13), it had peaked at 4.54% in 2007 and remained above 1.5%, before declining to 0.31% in his last year in office in 2013. This decline resulted from the United States and the international community imposing draconian sanctions the previous year against the Islamic Republic’s oil and banking sectors over its nuclear program.
Under Ahmadinejad, Iran’s trade with Africa was higher due to his intensified rapprochement with the continent facilitated by his Third Worldist foreign policy and rising international oil prices. By contrast, under Rouhani, trade remained comparatively and continuously low because he initially and exclusively pursued rapprochement with the United States and West over Africa and the Global South to differentiate himself from Ahmadinejad and to ease international pressure and economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic. This policy may have been partially motivated by the sharp drop in international oil prices during Rouhani’s presidency.
Under Rouhani, the African Headquarters in the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs —established under Ahmadinejad in 2005 and responsible for expanding economic relations with Africa — was nearly wound down. Additionally, some Iranian trade counselors, who were stationed at embassies on the continent and tasked with increasing Iran’s trade, were called back home. In response to Iranian neglect and Saudi military cooperation and aid and economic assistance during the Yemeni Civil War (2014-present), the Islamic Republic’s longtime allies and top trading partners in the Horn of Africa and elsewhere on the continent, including Sudan, Djibouti, and Somalia, ended their relations with Iran in 2016.
It was against the backdrop of the Islamic Republic’s neglect of Africa and loss of longtime allies and top trading partners on the continent under Rouhani that Raisi likely aspired to reset Iran-Africa relations. So far this effort seems to have made limited headway, as Raisi has only met with African officials from countries of second- and third-tier commercial importance in terms of bilateral trade, namely Mozambique, Togo, and Guinea-Bissau, rather than first-tier ones like Sudan, Djibouti, and Somalia — all of which cut ties with Iran under Rouhani. In terms of the Islamic Republic’s trade with these countries as a percentage of its total trade with Sub-Saharan Africa between 1979 and 2018, Sudan ranked third (3.53%), Djibouti ranked sixth (1.09%), and Somalia ranked eighth (0.61%). By contrast, Togo ranked 16th (0.15%), Mozambique ranked 17th (0.13%), and Guinea-Bissau ranked 37th (0.01%) — even if foreign trade only comprises one aspect of bilateral relations between Iran and these countries.
Although they have less importance as trading partners, Mozambique, Togo, and Guinea-Bissau have historical significance and offer strategic value. Mozambique is not a top trading partner, but it could become one again in the future. During the Pahlavi monarchy between 1963 and 1978, it was Iran’s ninth largest trading partner in Sub-Saharan Africa and accounted for 3.63% of its total average annual trade with the continent. After the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Mozambique was an important ally of the Islamic Republic. In 1986, then-President Khamenei toured it and three other countries in East Africa (Tanzania, Angola, and Zimbabwe) to gain diplomatic support during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), provide development assistance through the Ministry of Construction Jihad, and market Iran’s military hardware and other manufactured goods. During Ahmadinejad’s presidency between 2008 and 2009, the Iranian Ministry of Agricultural Jihad (MAJ) sent delegates to Mozambique and 12 other African countries to offer agricultural and development assistance.
While Togo is also not a sizeable trading partner, it is a long-standing one and reportedly began trading with Iran as early as 1966. Moreover, it has other strategic significance as well, as a potential source of uranium for the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. As a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council between 2012 and 2013, Togo could have voted against resolutions condemning the program and increasing sanctions against Iran — even if this outcome rarely, if ever, came to fruition. At the same time, and as a member of the United Nations General Assembly, Togo voted against resolutions censuring the Islamic Republic’s human rights record between 2006 and 2014. During the 2008-09 period, the MAJ explored purchasing phosphate from Togo to use as a chemical fertilizer, presumably as a means of influencing these votes.
As with Togo, the Islamic Republic has sought diplomatic support from Guinea-Bissau in regional and multilateral institutions, including the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), and African Union (AU) — of which Mozambique and Togo are also members. Toward the end of Ahmadinejad’s presidency between 2012 and 2013, and probably as a way of solidifying support from Guinea-Bissau in these institutions, Iran held bilateral talks and signed cooperative agreements with it in the areas of security and mining, health and medicine, agriculture and engineering, electricity and energy, and technology and development. Both countries also explored expanding cooperation between their private sectors, chambers of commerce, and consular facilities. Amid deteriorating Iran-Africa relations during Rouhani’s presidency, the speakers of parliament from the Islamic Republic and Guinea-Bissau met in Tehran on Jan. 21, 2018 to discuss strengthening economic, commercial, and parliamentary ties — a subject that was reiterated during Raisi’s meeting with Guinea-Bissau’s speaker of parliament in August 2021.
Rather than being part of a hegemonic and expansionist project, Raisi’s diplomatic outreach to Africa could be properly construed as an effort to reset relations with a continent that had been severely neglected by his predecessor. To this end, and less than a year into his presidency, Raisi has met with African officials from countries of second- and third-tier commercial importance that, nevertheless, possess historical, diplomatic, and strategic significance. It remains to be seen whether Raisi will differentiate himself from Rouhani by reinforcing relations with these countries and others beyond rhetoric into practice.
Compared with his predecessor, Raisi may prioritize Africa more given that he visited South Africa and other African countries as a presidential candidate in May 2017, unlike Rouhani throughout his entire presidency. In an international system with seemingly no permanent friendships or enmities, time will also tell if Raisi can restore relations with longtime allies and top trading partners on the continent that severed ties due to his predecessor’s neglect and Saudi cooperation and assistance. Beyond signing a new nuclear deal with the P5+1 and reducing economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic, achieving this foreign policy objective would require Raisi to show these allies and partners that he could deliver tangible diplomatic and commercial benefits to them discursively and practically.
Apart from engaging with Africa more than this predecessor, Raisi could learn at least two lessons from Ahmadinejad, who had encountered setbacks in Gambia, Senegal, and other African countries despite pursuing rapprochement with them. The first would be dialing down the anti-imperialist rhetoric to provide these countries with the diplomatic flexibility and geopolitical capital to pursue closer relations with Iran. These countries could do so without alienating the West and risk losing the latter’s aid, investment, and trade — even with China having surpassed the United States as Africa’s largest trading partner since 2009. The second would be implementing memoranda of understanding and other bilateral agreements, and prudently pushing them past the negotiating table while considering Iran’s financial, economic, and technological needs and constraints. After harboring high hopes during Ahmadinejad’s presidency, some African countries became disillusioned by Iran’s empty promises and unfulfilled commitments involving cooperation on trade, commerce, science, energy, health, and infrastructure — an outcome made worse by Rouhani’s neglect of these countries and others.
Eric Lob is an associate professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Florida International University and a non-resident scholar with MEI’s Iran Program. The views expressed in this piece are his own.
Photo by Iranian Presidency/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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