The inauguration last week of Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi, has been heralded as the advent of a “New Iran” by the ultra-conservative camp. Following the failure of the 2015 nuclear deal under his predecessor, Hassan Rouhani, the Islamic Republic’s center of power is willing to bring about a shift in Iran’s foreign policy. Although the Iranian authorities are still interested in the revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Raisi represents a resistance discourse that believes Iran has to focus on thwarting the sanctions instead of trying to lift them by means of political negotiations. The focal point of this worldview is the expansion of relations with non-Western countries, and Africa plays a central role in this effort. Raisi recently said, “In the new administration, all capacities [of Iran] for cooperation with African countries will be seriously activated.” This raises the question of why Africa is so important for the resistance discourse and whether the continent offers as much potential as Tehran thinks it does.
“Axis of resistance”
While Iran has long been a major Middle Eastern power, under the Islamic Republic it has more recently been known as part of the so-called “axis of resistance.” This concept came out of a discourse based on the belief that “Shia have collectively suffered throughout history,” and that the Islamic Republic, as the “government of resistance,” must provide deterrence against the “dominant powers.” Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is the architect of this strategy, which aims to challenge the status quo in the Middle East.
The Iranian authorities see “resistance” as a counterbalancing strategy against the geopolitical structure of international relations. They believe this structure has been built and imposed by the U.S., which poses an existential threat to the Islamic Republic. Washington’s regime change policy in the 2000s in the Middle East and Central Asia pushed Tehran into creating and strengthening the “axis of resistance” to build strategic depth in the Middle East, where it is identified as the main threat.
However, Iran’s geopolitical orbit is not limited to its own neighborhood, as the supreme leader made clear in a speech to commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in October 2019: “Do not miss this vast geography of resistance. Do not miss this cross-border look. [We] should not be satisfied [only] with our region.” The Islamic Republic’s geopolitical orientation has been based around two key pillars: first, a “look to the East” strategy pursued by signing long-term contracts with key Eastern powers — as exemplified by the 25-year accord with China and likely upcoming 20-year agreement with Russia — to build a bloc with the East against U.S. efforts to establish a unipolar world order; and second, “Third Worldism” aimed at expanding Iran’s influence in the “Global South.” Both are designed to boost Iran’s overall deterrence capability against the threat of regime change.
Focus on 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.
Although the supply of Iranian oil was the most important chip in Ahmadinejad’s hands, he also promoted his “South-South cooperation” strategy in African countries by building infrastructure like hospitals, setting up companies, and providing loans. It was part of a broader picture in which President Ahmadinejad became the voice of the center of power in Tehran and rejected the dominant world order, insisting not on détente but on the neutralization of threats through counter-threats, which translated into the policy of “resistance.” Iran invested in several African countries, but the results failed to meet expectations. With the tension between Iran and the West rising, Iran’s economy suffered significantly from the crippling sanctions imposed by the administration of former U.S. President Barack Obama. Thus, in 2013, when Rouhani succeeded Ahmadinejad as president, Iran’s foreign policy shifted gears to focus on dialogue with the West in an effort to end the deadlock over Iran’s nuclear program. This was in keeping with the traditional position of the so-called moderates, who have long portrayed themselves as advocates of de-escalation with the West.
With the victory of Raisi — who has a close relationship with the key centers of power in the Islamic Republic — in June’s presidential elections, a new era in the country’s foreign policy has begun. Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, a former speaker of Iran’s parliament, has said that President Raisi will “understand and accept” the advice of the supreme leader and will try to implement it, which “will be unique in comparison to the last four presidents.” It appears that the new administration will take steps based on the roadmap of “resistance” that the supreme leader has laid out for empowering the Islamic Republic. This framework will likely see the Raisi administration revive Ahmadinejad’s Africa policy, updating and reinforcing it to reflect changing conditions in Iran and the international environment. There are three main drivers behind this likely renewed focus on Africa under the new president.
"The world is not limited to the West"
Iranian authorities have frequently emphasized the slogan “the world is not limited to the West,” i.e. the U.S. and Europe. In fact, it is a focal point in the Islamic Republic’s main discourse that Shi’a refuse to accept pressure imposed by the “dominant powers.” With the failure of the nuclear deal under the Rouhani administration, more officials came to repeat this slogan, even Rouhani’s own foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who is considered pro-Western in Iran. Tehran’s interest in cultivating and strengthening relations with the non-Western world can be expected to increase under the Raisi administration. In his first press conference, the then-president-elect stated that the “foreign policy of my administration will not be limited to the JCPOA and I will consider broad and balanced interaction with the world.”
Iran’s wider conservative camp believes Rouhani wasted too much time and energy focusing on the West and argue that the U.S. and Europe have continued to try to weaken the Islamic Republic. Traditionally, post-revolutionary Iran has seen the expansion of ties with non-Western countries as a means of counterbalancing pressures exerted by the West in the form of U.S.-led sanctions or military containment efforts. Tehran’s “look to the East” geopolitical orientation and efforts to boost ties with Asian powers such as China, Russia, and India have been identified by Iran’s leadership as a major way of counteracting such pressures. However, other parts of the world, most notably Africa and Latin America, are also part of this Iranian strategy to boost its economic and geopolitical clout by shifting its focus away from the West.
President Ahmadinejad was a key promoter of this strategy, with Iran undertaking substantial engagement in Africa during his administration. In this vein, Ahmadinejad said that “extensive and profound cooperation between Iran and Africa will go a long way to modify international relations and regional balance.” He increased the number of Iranian embassies in Africa and traveled to the continent more often than any previous president. Even Iranian car manufacturers found a market to export their products to in Africa. At that time, while the West was applying increased pressure on Iran, Africa was seen as an opportunity for Tehran to make political and economic gains. Iran’s increased involvement on the continent was also aimed at undermining unity among the international community against Iran at the U.N. General Assembly, the U.N. Security Council, and the International Atomic Energy Agency.
In 2012, in a meeting with the president of Benin and the chair of the African Union, Ayatollah Khamenei identified Africa as a key aspect of Iran’s geopolitical orbit, saying that “the African continent is part of the main framework of the foreign policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran.” However, this changed under the Rouhani administration, which paid far less attention to Africa in its foreign policy. With the transition to President Raisi, who has promised to promote a foreign policy aimed at thwarting U.S. efforts against the Islamic Republic based on Khamenei’s advice, the importance of non-Western countries is likely to be revived. Foad Izadi, a University of Tehran professor of political science who has a close relationship with the hardline camp, has suggested a change of geopolitical priorities under Raisi, stating that “the most important preference of Raisi will be changing the foreign policy of the Rouhani administration that was based on interaction with the West.”
In other words, the maxim “the world is not limited to the West” will once again be central to Iran’s foreign policy and the Raisi administration can count on the support of the hardline-majority parliament in this effort. In a meeting with Zimbabwe’s ambassador to Iran in February, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, special aide to the speaker of parliament in international affairs and Raisi’s nominee for foreign minister, stressed that “Iran’s parliament emphasizes strengthening cooperation on the important continent of Africa.”
During Ahmadinejad’s first term as president (2005-09), Iran took advantage of skyrocketing oil prices and became an economic actor in Africa. Significant progress was made in promoting Iranian influence on the continent, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. Nevertheless, the crippling sanctions imposed under both the Obama and Trump administrations were a game changer, with Tehran’s economic interests being undermined by regional rivals such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
This led to a new policy, with Iranian authorities deciding to invest in clusters of knowledge-based companies (known as Danesh Bonyan) and initiatives to circumvent sanctions. These companies are usually private organizations that seek to commercialize research results, particularly in medicine, food supply chain optimization, agricultural mechanization, and crop yield maximization. As these small businesses belong to the private sector and their field of work is related to humanitarian products, they are less vulnerable to sanctions. In the last two years, with the U.S. withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal and the EU unwilling to compensate Iran for its economic losses, the role of knowledge-based companies in circumventing sanctions has gained greater importance. As Africa is nearly an untapped market in these areas and many African countries rely on imported services in medicine, food, and agriculture, there is a unique opportunity for Iran to profit from meeting Africa’s needs.
For instance, in January, the Iran House of Innovation and Technology (iHit) opened in Kenya, and Tehran also aims to establish an economic zone in the country by the end of this year. Moreover, in June, a “specialized office for exporting Iranian biotechnological products” started operating in Uganda. Iran’s ambassador to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has stated that the second-largest African country will be Tehran’s next priority, inviting Iranian start-ups and knowledge-based companies to come to the DRC. Tehran University of Medical Sciences has signed an agreement with the African Health Development Center, located in Ghana, to cooperate in the field of medical nanotechnology. And referring to a grant of €200 million ($235 million) to support exports to Africa, Farzad Piltan, the director-general of the Iranian Trade Promotion Organization’s Office of Arabian and African Countries, said, “In a three-year plan, we will increase Iran’s exports to the continent to $1.1 billion.” These recent developments are a clear sign of the re-emergence of Iran’s Africa strategy and its efforts to boost its economic ties with the continent.
Given the inclination of the Raisi administration to expand relations with non-Western actors, it is likely to support a greater Iranian presence in Africa. While the sanctions have little impact on the companies involved, their expansion on the continent will likely be a priority for the new administration. In early July, Raisi said that one of the conditions for those wishing to work with his administration will be the shared belief in the activities of knowledge-based companies, stressing that “all officials of the incoming administration must be serious on supporting these companies.” It should not be forgotten that if Tehran improves its economic ties with African countries via these smaller, knowledge-based firms, Iran may later have a strong position in the vast African market for its oil and the products of bigger companies, following any further easing of sanctions under the Biden administration.
Expanding the geography of resistance
The Iranian authorities believe that what has turned the Islamic Republic into a regional power is their “resistance policy,” and thus they need to expand it beyond the Middle East. Although Iran has sought to deepen its influence in Africa over the last two decades, the need for a broader axis of resistance became clear after the killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the IRGC’s foreign operations arm, the Quds Force, in January 2020. In this context, Gen. Ali Fadavi, the deputy chief of the IRGC, said that Solemani’s legacy will be strengthened as the geography of resistance will hugely expand in the future. Tasnim, a news agency close to the IRGC, published a piece just after Soleimani’s death, stressing that if the Quds Force can make Africa part of Iran’s strategic depth, Tehran will be able to strike the U.S. there as Washington is more vulnerable in Africa than in other regions.
Another aim of Tehran’s in expanding its influence in Africa is to contain its regional rivals, including Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, all of which have become active on the continent in recent years. To this end, the Islamic Republic is seeking to leverage its ideological potential among African state and non-state actors. It hopes that Islam, and particularly the Shi’a worldview, will give it a chance to enhance its influence across the continent. In this vein, Iran has focused on Nigeria, Senegal, and Tanzania, an effort which will likely be maintained and strengthened under the Raisi administration.
Furthermore, one of the main drivers of Iran’s geopolitical orientation is to influence countries where the people or governments already have cultural antagonism with the West. Anti-colonial sentiment in parts of Africa could pave the way for Iran and some African countries to reach a common perspective, which could in turn enlarge Iran’s role in the region.
In the last eight years, the Rouhani administration’s willingness to seek an accommodation with the West clashed with Iran’s “axis of resistance” regional policies. Now, under President Raisi, the resistance strategy — as Tehran’s main tool in counterbalancing the dominant world order — will gain full support from all centers of power in Iran, including the administration. Amir Mousavi, a retired Iranian diplomat, told Al-Mayadeen TV in July that “the axis of resistance will fully benefit from the victory of Raisi” in the election.
The Raisi presidency will not change the core tenets of the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy, which include a managed confrontation with the U.S. and a willingness to revive the JCPOA for the sake of economic stability. However, Iran will intensify efforts to pivot to non-Western countries, and Africa is likely to be an increasingly important part of this effort. In the minds of officials in Tehran, the expansion of ties with African countries is based on a realistic worldview, enabling the Islamic Republic to defend its interests against regional and global enemies. While the U.S. has targeted Iran economically twice within a decade, the presidency of Raisi — a loyalist to the key centers of power in the Islamic Republic — will provide Tehran with the chance to pursue its economic, political, and security interests from what it hopes will be its African strategic depth. Indeed, Iranian officials believe Africa is an opportunity for Tehran to reject the dominant world order, which the Islamic Republic recognizes as a threat to its identity and discourse.
During the Ahmadinejad administration, Iran pursued a similar African policy with unsatisfactory results. Back then, African countries, due to pressure from the West, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, 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. Nevertheless, the Raisi administration will need to promote an African orientation in its foreign policy to convince international and particularly domestic audiences that the county has alternatives. This highlights the importance of the worldview that the “world is not limited to the West,” regardless of the outcomes. The other chance for the new administration would be the revival of the JCPOA; Raisi has shown his inclination and it seem Tehran will inevitably need the JCPOA talks to reduce U.S. pressure, which would allow the new president to pursue his policy toward Africa. While Rouhani was interested in reviving the deal as a way to improve Iran’s relationship with the West, the new administration aims to take advantage of the JCPOA to invest in non-Western countries to further protect itself against the West.
Amin Naeni is a Project Researcher at the University of Tehran’s Department of Regional Studies. He holds an M.A. in Middle East and North Africa Studies from the University of Tehran. You can follow him on Twitter. The views expressed in this piece are his own.
Photo by Meghdad Madadi/ATPImages/Getty Images
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