Western diplomats should not dismiss Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's West African tour last month as the last gasp of Iran's lame duck president. While the west seeks to isolate Iran against the backdrop of nuclear sanctions and concerns regarding Iranian terror sponsorship, the Islamic Republic has crafted a broad-based Africa strategy that will last long after Ahmadinejad's final days as president.
Diplomatic rhetoric aside, for both European and American statesman, Africa is a forgotten continent. European government might work to prevent illegal migration and provide occasional aid but most African countries - even former colonies - receive nowhere near the European diplomatic or trade attention that the Middle East or East Asian countries do.
Tehran sees many of Africa's 54 countries as diplomatic easy picking in a zero-sum game for influence. For much of the last decade, Iran's leadership has reached out to their African counterparts not simply to win new friends but in a multifaceted strategy to stymie western pressure. European and American leaders seldom travel to Sub-Saharan Africa. In her eight years as German Chancellor Angela Merkel has visited sub-Saharan Africa only twice, touching down in five countries. And British Prime Minister David Cameron has visited only South Africa, Nigeria, and Liberia in his three year tenure. In contrast, Ahmadinejad visits Africa at annually if not more often, while the Supreme Leader dispatches representatives with even greater frequency.
Some 20 years ago, the European Union took the lead on addressing concerns about Iran's nuclear weapons drive. Leaders has two goals. First, they sincerely wanted to resolve the crisis, both to maintain stability and to keep relevant the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. And second, they wanted to prove that the European way of diplomacy—with its emphasis on multilateralism and international organisations—could be as effective, if not more so, than the American overemphasis on coercion and Washington's tendency toward unilateralism.
Iran's Africa strategy, however, seeks to stymie the European strategy by paralysing international organisations. In recent years, Gabon, Rwanda, Togo, and Uganda have served as non-permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, while Kenya, Niger, and Tanzania have served on the International Atomic Energy Agency board of governors. Nigeria and South Africa have served on both bodies.
After African countries declare their candidacy let alone win seats in bodies voting on Iran's nuclear programme or sanctions, they become targets for Iranian largesse. Despite sanctions, high oil prices have left Iran awash in cash. Iranian officials are only too willing to provide to new-found African partners with funds in exchange for their votes in international bodies. International organisations might embrace lofty principles of peace and international law but Iranian diplomats stake their nuclear project on their ability to corrupt them.
Their African partners appear only too willing to assist. South Africa, for example, now receives more than 25 per cent of its oil at discounted prices from Iran. It should not surprise European officials that Pretoria recently worked to block an IAEA resolution urging Tehran to comply with UN Security Council resolutions. One Togolese newspaper openly discussed engaging Iran and the west in a bidding war for Togo's cooperation. Shortly before Gabon took its security council seat, it became the subject of intense Iranian courtship. The Gabonese culture minister visited Tehran carrying a wish-list of projects for Iran to subsidise or provide the first in a series of meetings that culminated in a presidential summit. Within a month, Gabonese Foreign Minister Paul Toungui visited Tehran, where he signed a host of agreements and contracts.
Early the next year, after the Gabonese president met Iran's foreign minister, Gabon used its seat to support Iran's nuclear program. Iran's Africa strategy is broader, however. While Tehran has long claimed that a desire for indigenous energy security motivates their nuclear programme, the Islamic Republic faces a shortfall of uranium to achieve that goal, as their known reserves are unable to fuel the eight nuclear reactors Iranian officials say they will build. Perhaps it should not surprise, then, that Iranian diplomacy focuses disproportionately on African countries which produce uranium ore or prospect for it.
Former Central African Republic officials have accused their opponents of seeking to negotiate yellow cake export deals to Tehran. While Iran long ignored the West African country of Guinea, that country's discovery of commercially-viable uranium deposits six years ago garnered Tehran's interest. In 2010, Iran announced a 140 per cent increase in trade with Guinea, of which the mining sector accounted for the bulk. Recent Iranian outreach to Gambia, Malawi, Namibia, and Uganda also coincides with the discovery of uranium in those countries.
European officials might still hope to resolve the Iranian nuclear impasse peacefully with diplomacy in New York and Vienna. Iranian activity in Africa, though, suggests that the west needs a much broader strategy to constrain Iran, one that neither ignores Africa nor takes its myriad governments for granted.