Iran turns on the charm for Africa

Threatened with UN sanctions, Tehran is courting developing nations for support.

Making friends is tough when much of the world has turned against you. Iran finds itself in this situation today. Suppression of free speech, crackdowns on dissidents, and a poor reputation for respecting human rights have all made Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad an international pariah. But the president is working hard to build diplomatic relations with African countries, in some cases by using promises of lucrative development deals.

Diplomatic visits between Iran and African countries are increasingly common. Most recently, South Africa’s Speaker of Parliament travelled to Tehran in January. “There is no impediment to the expansion of bilateral ties,” Ahmadinejad boasted at the time. Last year, the president paid visits to Senegal, Kenya, Djibouti and Gambia. He’s also built ties with Sudan and Nigeria.

Iran’s motives are not hard to discern. The country needs support to avoid sanctions from the United Nations and to keep its nuclear program running. “It knows it’s isolated, and it will cultivate friendships where itcan find them,” says Michael Rubin, a resident scholar with the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research who focuses on the Middle East. Take South Africa. Iran exports about 90,000 barrels of crude oil a day to South Africa. The country also happens to be an important member of the Non-Aligned Movement, a bloc of 118 mostly developing nations that has opposed attempts to shut down Iran’s civilian nuclear program in the past.

Likewise, Iran views the Muslim nation of Senegal as a stepping stone to greater influence on the continent, particularly in other predominantly Muslim countries. Senegal gets economic benefits by dealing with Iran. It is already the recipient of an Iranian-built auto factory, and has been promised an oil refinery and a chemical plant. Iran has also courted Uganda, which is currently a member of the United Nations Security Council. The body has chastised Iran for its nuclear research a number of times over the past few years, and some countries are trying to push a sanctions vote on Iran at the UN by next month. From its perspective, Iran could use a sympathetic ear at the UN, and last year it struck a deal with Uganda to help fund the construction of an oil refinery. The Tehran Times has since reported on Uganda’s support for Iran’s nuclear program.

Iran is also clearly nervous about the possibility of economic sanctions. The country imports the majority of its consumer goods and machinery for its domestic manufacturing industry, nearly all of which ships through Dubai. “Should the U.S. or the Europeans be able to clamp down on Dubai, Iran is going to have to findsome alternative way of getting goods into the country,” says Peter Zeihan, vice-president of strategic analysis at STRATFOR, a global intelligence firm. Iran needs to target countries with decent transportation infrastructure, which helps to further explain its interest in both South Africa and Uganda.

But a lot Ahmadinejad’s boasting about economic ties between Iran and African countries is likely just rhetoric. “Oftentimes, Iranians announce deals that never come to fruition,” Rubin says, who estimates only 10% to 15% of the announcements will actually pan out. How much progress Iran makes in Africa also depends largely on the price of oil – which is responsible for Iran’s wealth – and how well Iranian money keeps rolling in. “When the money dries up,” Rubin says, “these countries tend to go their own way.”