After having narrowly escaped the domestic challenges posed by the popular mobilisation that late last year followed the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, resulting in widespread protests around the country that threatened the stability of its conservative regime, Iran looks increasingly more active on the global stage. Its foreign policy objectives include a tentative rapprochement with its long-term rival Saudi Arabia, which has been brokered early this year by China and bring the promise of an end to the Middle East Cold War that in the past decade has made civil conflicts intractable, from Syria to Yemen. Nevertheless, the ambitions of the leadership in Teheran are not limited to the wider region, but span across different continents, where Iran has been trying to make forays.
After a brief visit in June to Latin America (where he landed in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela), on the 11th of July the Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi started a diplomatic tour in East Africa. Pursuing a charm offensive in a Global South that likes to look at itself as increasingly remote from and disinterred to the East-West confrontation, Raisi found a receptive audience in Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe. The main goal of the visit was certainly to boost bilateral investments and trade, particularly in Kenya, where plans to set up a manufacturing plant for Iranian vehicles in Mombasa have been laid out. Several economic agreements were also signed in Zimbabwe, which (like Iran) is under US sanctions for undemocratic practices, human rights abuses and economic mismanagement that go back to the era of President Robert Mugabe.
His successor, Emerson Mnangawa, certainly shares Teheran’s contempt of the West that also goes well with his Ugandan counterpart Yoweri Museweni, frequently criticised for stifling opposition and suppressing civil rights. Considering these commonalities, it is clear how, beyond offering an end to Iran’s international isolation, Africa also provides Teheran with an anti-colonial platform from where to castigate the West, while also offering some breathing room for an economy atrophied by years of severe economic sanctions. An unmissable opportunity that also help explain Iran’s recent openings to Egypt and Morocco, with whom Teheran is now ready to turn the page after years of diplomatic misunderstandings and severed ties.
The international conjuncture seems perfectly ripe for Raisi’s activism in a continent where different global actors and rising powers have been already engaged in a new scramble for Africa that adds up to existing geopolitical tensions. Furthermore, Iran’s inroads are occurring at the same time when competitive collaboration is already causing a rift between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, showing visible cracks in Sudan (where the two Gulf powers have now diverging agendas in the civil war that has been ravaging the country since April). Driven by the increasing animosity between the two ambitious leaderships, the Saudi-UAE estrangement could offer an unexpected chance for Iran to gain a foothold in a continent that looks increasingly crucial for the global balance of power.
Associate Fellow for the Conflict, Security and Development Programme at the IISS and Maghreb Analyst for the NATO Defense College Foundation, he regularly publishes on issues such as political developments, security and terrorism in the North Africa region