When it comes to Africa, Iran’s imperial project to export the Islamic Revolution and its Khomeinist doctrine throughout the Muslim world and beyond has proceeded in fits and starts, notching several successes but also notable failures. Iran views the African continent as an ancillary arena in a zero-sum battle for influence, power, and territory against Saudi Arabia and the Kingdom’s brand of Sunni, Salafist Islam, often referred to as Wahhabism. Iran has also sought to counteract Western influence, and in particular that of the United States, within Africa, finding common cause with elements opposed to colonialism and seeking to chart a more independent course.
Iran’s bid for influence on the African continent since the 1979 Islamic Revolution has been an uphill struggle as Iran has no significant historical footprint in Africa, and due to the predominance of adherence to Sunni and Sufi forms of Islam among African Muslims. Nonetheless, Iran has created an infrastructure of mosques, cultural centers, charitable networks, and educational institutions which have served to spread its revolutionary ethos to Africa.
Ayatollah Khomeini’s ascendance shifted Iran’s foreign policy focus from the West to the developing world, and African outreach soon became a high priority. Iranian leaders saw African nations, where many political systems had not matured or stabilized in the post-independence era, as susceptible targets for the spread of the Islamic Revolution. One of Khomeini’s first foreign policy gambits was to sever ties with the apartheid regime in South Africa, which was a key African ally of the Shah’s regime, and to pledge complete support to the African National Congress. This move bolstered Iran’s image in Africa and lent credence to the revolutionary regime’s aspirations to be perceived as champions of the world’s oppressed peoples.
Many Africans, and Muslims in particular, developed favorable views of Iran’s revolution as a “victory of popular forces against a corrupt and repressive regime supported by the Western powers.” In the absence of a widely revered indigenous Muslim leader on the continent, Khomeini’s popularity grew, and his ideology, which fused Islamic governance with Marxist-influenced economic themes, resonated against a backdrop of widening political and economic disparities in the postcolonial period.
In the early 1980s, Iran began a concerted effort to establish diplomatic, commercial, and cultural ties to Africa in order to lay the groundwork for the spread of its revolutionary ideology. A 1984 report by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency on growing Iranian activity in Africa found that just five years in, Tehran’s revolutionary government had embarked on an aggressive campaign to build “networks of sympathizers among Muslim fundamentalist groups, Lebanese communities, and universities in the region.”
As in Latin America, Iran was bolstered in its revolutionary project by the presence of nearly 120,000 Lebanese Shi’a expatriates in Western Africa, many with strong ties to their respective nations’ business and political elites. Iran found that some powerful Lebanese expats were willing to serve as intermediaries on behalf of Tehran’s political, religious, and business interests in Africa, while others sought to steer clear of an association with Iran’s controversial political activities, lest they harm their own privileged economic and political position, or bring suspicion on the entire Lebanese community.
Although most West African Lebanese have few links to Hezbollah, these well-established communities have served as a conduit for the group, Iran’s primary terrorist proxy, to establish an operational and fundraising presence in the region. Hezbollah has been known to recruit and operate actively in Sierra Leone, Senegal, Ivory Coast, and Nigeria, partaking in illicit money laundering, drug trafficking, blood diamond sales, and arms dealing for supplemental sources of income. The group has been bolstered by porous borders and weak, unregulated economic environments which have enabled it to freely conduct criminal enterprises and set up front companies to channel funds back to Lebanon. Hezbollah is believed to have generated millions of dollars annually from West Africa, although U.S. officials have succeeded in recent years in reducing the flow through a campaign of sanctions targeting Hezbollah’s activities in the region.
In addition to anchoring Hezbollah in the region, Iran set about leveraging its ties to the Lebanese community to expand its diplomatic footprint in Africa, doubling its embassies in Sub-Saharan Africa from nine to eighteen between 1982 and 1984. Iran’s embassies in the region served as the focal point of Iran’s efforts to promote its culture and ideology on the continent. The embassies provided Iran with bases around the continent to coordinate media, cultural and educational outreach to local communities. Iranian cultural centers typically sprang up around the embassies which were operated by Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Propagation, the government body tasked with “informing the world community about the basis and aspirations of the Islamic Revolution” and “preparing the ground for spread of the culture of Islamic Revolution…in other countries.”
With official diplomatic presences in place, Iran set about propagandizing and proselytizing with the aim of recruiting adherents to Khomeinist doctrine. Iran’s embassies cultivated relationships with local press outlets in order to place articles favorable to the Iranian regime’s worldview. Iran also utilized its embassies and cultural centers for the dissemination of books, periodicals, and cassettes propagating Khomeinist propaganda in local languages.
Iran’s presence on the ground enabled it to build bridges to two key constituencies which Iran sought to court in order to make inroads to broader swathes of society, clerics and university activists. Iran dispatched groups of clergymen to Africa to establish contacts with local Muslim communities. The Iranian clergy staged seminars and conferences with local clerics in an effort to indoctrinate them into Khomeinist theology which they would then impart to their own followers, and also sought to target Muslim adherents directly, giving highly politicized and inflammatory guest sermons at local mosques.
Similarly, Iran sought to establish ties to radical Muslim student groups on university campuses, dispatching diplomatic personnel as professors, guest lecturers, and students to introduce Khomeini’s teachings and spur pro-Iranian student demonstrations. A large part of Iran’s clerical and university outreach to Africa was to recruit clergy and university activists sympathetic to the regime’s worldview and bring them to Tehran for further indoctrination.