In late July, Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, embarked on a 4-state tour of West Africa, including Nigeria, Guinea, Mali, and Ghana. The Foreign Minister and a delegation from the Trade Promotion Organization of Iran (TPOI) met with businesspeople, investors, and economic officials in the hopes of creating a plan to increase economic and trade relations between Tehran and its West African counterparts. Iran’s potential trading partners could include companies from various sectors: health; energy; finance; agriculture; and engineering. Upon completion of this six-day diplomatic trek, Zarif declared his efforts had been “successful,” as new trade centers were established and future plans to expand Iran’s export of goods and services were announced (1).
Following the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) last January and the subsequent removal of U.S. sanctions, the Islamic Republic has sought to engage African states both politically and economically, and chart its expanding influence over the developing continent. Although the removal of certain sanctions has largely made this strategic pivot possible, more recent international developments have facilitated the ease with which Iran has stepped into the global economy (2).
By pivoting to Africa, Iran is strategically occupying a gaping void of influence, which Great Britain left, upon the country’s decision to leave the European Union last June. In a country such as Somalia, the European Union has been the single-largest donor, responsible for an average of $80 million per year in aid and credited with stabilizing the historically fragile state. In the past, London has led these efforts, as it has not only shouldered an outsized portion of aid relief but also championed Somalia’s national security with its support for multinational forces that protect the federal government from extremist groups, like al-Shabaab. However, ‘Brexit’ –– an assault to a traditional culture of multilateralism in the international community –– means that such assurances, like aid or security forces, tenuously hang in the balance. With regard to trade, Britain, as a result of its decision to leave the EU, must negotiate new trade deals with 52 African states –– a mammoth task that an overextended British government will likely neglect in the coming years. Moreover, in the absence of Britain’s dependably anti-protectionist influence within the EU, African states face the prospect of European trade policy that is less accommodating of their interests (3).
Thus, Iran has emerged as a beacon of hope in Africa, promising security –– both political and economic –– in the midst of insecurity. Foreign Minister Zarif’s claim that Tehran will join West African states, such as Mali, to combat terrorism and extremism is among the most notable of Iran’s promises.
“Iran is ready to cooperate with Bamako in the fight against terrorism and extremism,” Zarif said during his meeting with Mali’s Prime Minister Modibo Keita in Bamako. Zarif specifically added that Iran could offer its considerable experience effectively targeting the drug-trafficking operations of violent political groups (4).
However, contrary to Foreign Minister Zarif’s claims, the U.S. State Department released a report last June that listed Iran as the world’s top state sponsor of terrorism. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) –– Tehran’s formidable military-industrial-financial complex –– has evolved within the last three decades into a “mafia cartel” responsible for the country’s vast underground economy, known for its illicit trade of drugs and weapons and its support for terrorist proxies, like Hezbollah and Hamas. A 2012 report from the U.S. Treasury Department described the IRGC’s commanding officer, Brig. Gen. Gholamreza Baghbani, as the mastermind behind Iran’s export of drugs, particularly heroin, to the West. The IRGC’s support for drug-trafficking operations is, in part, responsible for Iran’s thriving underground economy, which –– according to estimates –– accounts for approximately 36 percent of Iran’s GDP. By placing IRGC leaders on the U.S. sanctions list for drug trafficking, the United States has attempted to combat the group; however, with its ties to drug cartels in Central and South America through Hezbollah, the IRGC maintains its financial independence, despite U.S. sanctions and despite opposition from some Iranian civil politicians (5).
If Iran cannot contain the export of extremism, weapons, and drugs from within its own borders and tacitly supports the organization responsible for this unbridled phenomenon, what incentive draws the country to a continent equally plagued by insecurity?
Beyond the economic benefits of expanding trade, the incentive for Iran appears two-fold. First, Iran would like to broaden its influence in the international community, especially in light of persistent opposition from the West –– the gatekeepers of decision-making bodies, like the United Nations. In the eyes of Tehran, African countries could potentially provide invaluable support that would counter U.N. or U.S. policies that target Iran. Second, Africa represents an untapped source of terrorist networks that could support Iran in the event of an attack from the United States or Israel. For years, Iran has been building its relationship with African states, such as Nigeria, where a considerable Shi’a, extremist community resides (6).
Rather than attempting to solve the ills of an entire continent, Iran –– before the country can become an effective member of the international community –– must focus first on addressing its innumerable internal problems. Grassroots organizations, in particular, will play an important role in the healing and transformation that must occur within the country. For example, the Aftab Society, Iran’s largest non-governmental organization, works tirelessly to provide communities with programs focused on drug-demand reduction. The Aftab Society’s efforts are part of a new, innovative strategy to build internal resilience and undermine the corrupt work of groups, like the IRGC. Going forward, international and regional partnerships, outfitted with exceptional resources and expertise, must come alongside Iran’s NGO community (7). Until such a concerted effort emerges, one must realistically expect that Iran’s insecurity will persist.
(1) "Iranian Businessmen Talking Trade in Africa." Tehran Times. Tehran Times, 26 July 2016. Web. 13 Aug. 2016.
(2) "Iran Sees 'New Chapter' in Ties with West African States." Press TV. Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, 28 July 2016. Web. 13 Aug. 2016.
(3) De Waal, Alex. "Brexit Is Bad News for Africa. Period." Foreign Policy. The FP Group, 27 June 2016. Web. 13 Aug. 2016.
(4) Kazimov, Khalid. "Iran Expresses Support for Mali in Fight Against Terrorism." Trend News Agency. Baku Network, 28 July 2016. Web. 13 Aug. 2016.
(5) Ghasseminejad, Saeed. "How Iran's Mafia-Like Revolutionary Guard Rules the Country's Black Market." Business Insider. Business Insider, Inc, 10 Dec. 2015. Web. 13 Aug. 2016.
(6) Zenn, Jacob. "The Islamic Movement and Iranian Intelligence Activities in Nigeria." Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. CTC Sentinel, 24 Oct. 2013. Web. 13 Aug. 2016.
(7) Calabrese, John. "Iran's War on Drugs: Holding the Line?" Middle East Institute. Middle East Institute, 01 Dec. 2007. Web. 13 Aug. 2016.
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Bailee Ahern has been the Director of Human Security for Global Intelligence since the summer of 2016. In this position, she strives to find the nexus of international affairs and human-interest stories. Outside of GIT, Bailee is a student at the University of Southern California, where she studies political science and international relations. Her research interests are varied. Bailee has spent time in Washington, D.C., studying nuclear non-proliferation and weapons of mass destruction; at the University of Oxford, researching humanitarian action and peacemaking; and on campus, assisting a professor with political-risk analysis of inter-state conflicts. Both the Columbia Undergraduate Law Review and the USC Journal of Law & Society have published her research. The one through line in all of Bailee's work is a passion for writing. Her column for the Daily Trojan––USC's only student-run newspaper––has become an invaluable outlet to engage her campus and a confluence of all her greatest passions––writing, politics, and social justice.