Iran’s African Odyssey

Dear Folks,

I just came back from a fabulous holiday in eastern Romania. For a country that is most associated with gymnasts, babies for adoption and Vlad the Impaler, it has a surprising amount to offer. I particularly liked their industrial cookies and national chocolate bars. I think it is a place that everyone should visit if the opportunity arises.

Three years ago, whilst rummaging through a drawer, I came across a sim card belonging to my fiancé written in Farsi. It came from South Africa’s telecommunications giant MTN. I thought it baffling at the time that a South African firm would be involved in a country so far away. But sure enough, I discovered that MTN struck a deal in 2005 to purchase a 49% stake in Iran’s Irancell mobile network. The Islamic Republic is now the third largest market for MTN after South Africa and Nigeria. Across Africa, business for Iranian firms is booming.  Africa is a vast chessboard for competing interest groups, whether they are aid agencies, oil companies, diamond smugglers or nations seeking to clean its image in the world. The Islamic Republic is one in a long line of countries headed to the continent.  The same government charged with the brutal task of crushing and eliminating dissent across Iran is trying to rebrand itself as concerned with the downtrodden and exploited people of Africa.

Many leaders have welcomed Iranian investment.  In February 2011, Zimbabwe’s Herald newspaper reported on a group of Iranian investors looking to boost trade links in the mining and agricultural sector. Abbas Johari from the Co-operative Ministry said: “we carry a special friendship message to the people of Zimbabwe…We want to explore areas of possible investment and co-operation in Zimbabwe”. In April 2010, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad went on a major tour of African capitals. He went to a trade fair in Zimbabwe, followed by Uganda, where Iran is building a tractor assembly plant, and also proposed to construct a $ 2 billion dollar oil refinery. Three months later, he travelled to Nigeria in which Iran’s second-largest car manufacturer Saipa produces and markets budget vehicles. In nearby Senegal, the Iranian company Khodro assembles vehicles in the capital Dakar, and in East Africa, the state-owned Kenya Meat Commission signed a lucrative deal in January to supply Iran with 1000 metric tonnes of meat, and plans to increase the amount depending on demand.

In country after country, Iran has been making an impact. From 2005 to 2009, overall Iranian exports to Africa more than doubled. It is not just about business, the Islamic Republic needs to secure UN votes. South Africa for instance has abstained on resolutions condemning the country’s human rights violations. According to the AEI’s Iran Tracker, in July 2008, South Africa reiterated its position on Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear technology and claimed that the International Atomic Energy Agency, rather than the UN Security Council should deal with the issue. In 2008, after Russia and China reduced military aid to Sudan, President Omar al-Bashir, signed a bilateral agreement with Iran, which included military cooperation. A year later, Sudan’s foreign minister Deng Alor lent his country’s support for Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

As far as President Ahmadinejad is concerned, there are no limits to the expansion of Iran’s ties with African countries. In September 2010, South Africa’s Mail & Guardian newspaper reported the president say, at an Iran-Africa conference, that “Iran and Africa wanted a new world order to replace the existing one which has been created by slave masters”. In November, the foreign minister at the time, Manouchehr Mottaki told a group of Iranian businessmen: “we do not want to plunder Africa like the Westerners and colonialists, and we’re seeking bilateral economic relations beneficial to both sides”. Numerous countries over the years have come to take advantage of Africa’s vast natural resources. Until the middle of this century, it was the domain of a select group of empire-building states that were more interested in placing flags in the ground, carrying loot to the motherland and implanting its own cultural paraphernalia. On the other hand,  the Islamic Republic wants to be the altruistic alternative.

However, on closer inspection, all is not as rosy as it would appear. For one thing, Iran is not the only country looking for African partners. China, Turkey and Israel are all looking to invest, and Iran, despite the rhetoric, has in some cases failed to live up to its promises. According to an article featured in The Africa Report from June 2011, Iran advanced funding in 2004 for Zimbabwe’s state broadcaster to refurbish its obsolete equipment. The Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation claimed the Iranian supplied broadcasting equipment was “defective”, and only one out of three re-equipped studios was able to function. ZBC argued that engineers from the station expected to be flown to Iran to learn how to use the equipment before commissioning, which was part of the contractual agreement, but the training trip never took place. The corporation and the Iranian government are now in a spat due to ZBC’s refusal to repay a 5 million euro loan, after honouring only €300,000.

In October 2010, the Nigerian government seized an Iranian shipment of rockets, grenades and mortar shells that were believed to be on their way to separatists in the Senegalese region of Casamance, possibly via Gambia. According to the BBC, the Nigerian government promised to report the seizure to the Security Council if it was shown to be in violation of UN sanctions. Bloomberg news reported that thirteen vessels were intercepted and one Iranian, and three Nigerians were charged with unlawfully importing weapons. In response, Gambia cut ties with Iran and ordered its diplomats out of the country, Iranian officials believe it was due to US pressure. Senegal also withdrew its ambassador from Iran in December after allegations that the arms could have led to the deaths of Senegalese soldiers. Five weeks later, Iran’s interim foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi pledged to offer $200 million for joint economic projects. Afterwards President Abdoulaye Wade told his country’s ambassador to return to Tehran. Previous plans to open a second Khodro facility in Dakar were shelved in November as the government decided to reconsider future projects, as a result of the “diplomatic incident”.

Recently a string of other African have had second thoughts about its dealing with the Islamic Republic. Many realize that it may be wiser to keep the country out for fear of losing substantial injections of foreign aid from the United States and the European Union. However, if there is money to be made, many governments may find it hard to resist. Today being isolated by the west is no longer a sure-fire way to impoverishment. Yet, Iran will have to work to show that it is sincere in its efforts to support Africa’s poorest states, and harbours no secret agenda. In return it gets votes at the UN and muffled voices over its human rights record. What more could it ask for?

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