Are Iran and Israel, fierce enemies in the Middle East, going to export their rivalry to Africa? Both Teheran and Tel Aviv are very interested in establishing economic and political ties with many Sub-Saharan countries. They are also closely monitoring each other’s moves on the field.
Last December Stratfor, a global intelligence company, issued a report suggesting that Iran was trying to expand its presence in Eritrea in order to strengthen its influence on Red Sea trade routes. Israel, in turn, established a “small but significant, focused, and precise” presence in the same East African country (which allegedly backs Somali al-Shebab Islamists, but is in continuous search of international support) to gather intelligence information on its long-time rival. And it was an African country – Sudan – that was indirectly involved in the Gaza crisis last November. Shortly before ‘Operation Pillar of Cloud’, there was an explosion in the Yarmouk weapon factory in Khartoum. The Sudanese government accused Israel of having bombed the complex. Israel never confirmed nor denied the charges. Instead, it accused Sudan of being part of an Iranian-backed network aimed at supplying weapons to the Islamic Jihad and Hamas movements in Gaza.
The Sudanese region has been described as the scenery of a possible proxy war between the two Middle East countries. Iran has strong ties with Omar al-Bashir’s regime in Khartoum, and Israel has very good relationships with South Sudan, which may see the Middle Eastern state as a model in nation building. But the importance of the military element must not be overestimated. “There are many kinds of conflicts in Sub-Saharan Africa,” warns Ahmad Rafat, a London-based Iranian journalist and Middle East expert. “Iran is struggling to gain diplomatic support – he adds – and to attract African countries to its side. Within international organizations, the vote of an African country counts as much as one from USA, Italy, or Germany”. In its attempt to gain influence, Iran is also allegedly supporting armed radical movements. Last year a New York Times article, quoting a report by a private British firm, linked Iran to ammunition smuggling in many African countries. In addition, groups affiliated with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb directly profited from this trade, Niger for instance.
Iran also used more conventional methods to befriend African governments: “In the last 4-5 years the Islamic Republic granted loans on favourable terms to many African countries – Rafat says – or supplied them with oil at a low price.” Teheran also built factories and facilities in countries such as Senegal: ‘Iranian’ taxis are assembled in Thiès and the Muslim holy city of Touba has an Iranian-built water and sewage system. According to The Economist, the Senegalese government at the time accepted the ayatollahs’ offer after “abruptly” rejecting a previous offer coming from Israel, deemed less convenient. In fact, also Israel takes part in the diplomatic ‘scramble for Africa’, in an attempt to make a ‘comeback’: in the mid-1960s many independent African states – Israel had diplomatic missions in 32 of them – were among Tel Aviv’s allies in the UN general assembly. The Six-Day war of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973 pushed the vast majority of African states to break their ties with Israel. These were partially restored only after the 1993 Oslo accords with the PLO. Experts now regard Ethiopia as Tel Aviv’s strongest ally on the continent and, according to The Africa Report, the whole of East Africa – where Israel has five embassies – is seen by Israeli authorities as a “security backyard”. Israeli investments in Africa (like Iran’s) nowadays cannot compete in size with those of China, Europe, or the US. They do though cover a wide range of fields: from development aid (the dedicated state-led agency, Mashav, often cooperates with USAID or British DFID), to military cooperation, to private initiatives mainly in the mining sector. “But in order to exploit resources, a country must first pave a diplomatic road,” Ahmad Rafat warns. In fact, the visit to Africa in 2009 of the then Israeli foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman (the first high-level mission in 30 years) was instrumental in bolstering Israel-Africa relations once again.
Good diplomatic relations are even more crucial to Iran. “The main African resource Iran might need is uranium – Rafat says – but it can get to it only after establishing strong diplomatic ties. It would be unlikely for a country that does not depend on Iran – or without strong economic ties – to sell uranium to Teheran, facing the risk of international isolation.” However, Iran – unlike its arch-rival – can also rely on the religious factor. Despite being the leader of a Shi’ite nation, in the past president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was given a warm welcome in many countries hosting important Muslim (but mainly Sunni) communities: among them, apart from Senegal, is Kenya. From this point of view, however, Iran has to fight another ‘battle’ for supremacy in Africa. Paradoxically, its main opponent is a country whose links with Israel have been deteriorating in the last few years: Turkey.
This ‘battle’, according to Rafat, takes place “in countries where Islam is or might become a majority religion, but also in others where it is on the rise.” A similar situation occurred shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Iranian-born journalist recalls: “both Teheran and Ankara struggled to put some mainly Muslim former Soviet republics under their political influence. Turkey eventually prevailed, and today Iran enjoys good a relationship only with Armenia, due to its long-time anti-Turkish stance.” For Africa too, Rafat says “the Turkish model is regarded as more appealing, also because of its quick economic growth. But in the end everything depends on the efforts made by each country and on the money it can spend.” (D.M.)