In early March, the capital city of Tehran found itself host to the Iran-West Africa Economic Summit, another indication that as the United States competes with China and Russia to extend its influence over the African continent, a seemingly overlooked competitor has found itself in the likes of the Middle Eastern nation. Over the last few years, Iran has attempted to build relations and a strategic foothold in the “Horn of Africa” region, grown its presence as an observer of the African Union, and pledged, in the words of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, to pursue the “comprehensive development of relations with African countries.” This comes all while trade between Iran and Africa has increased by 39% since last year, according to Rouhollah Latif of the Iran-Africa Merchants Club. In light of the country’s growing alliance with Russia and China, Iran’s growing presence in Africa might not only prove to be problematic given its position as an enemy of the US, but as dangerous if it can enable the expanding influence of the US’s more powerful opponents.
Central to Iranian influence in the continent is its ability to convince and coordinate Shiite Muslims in Africa, given its role as the most powerful Shiite-majority country. Shia is the much smaller of the two major branches of Islam, the other being the Sunni branch that comprises the majority of virtually every African nations’ Muslim populations. Nonetheless, since Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979 Shiites have skyrocketed as a percentage of African countries’ populations, gaining Iranian influence and leverage over such countries’ domestic affairs. Of Nigeria’s Muslim population of 90 million, for example, its Shiite percentage grew from close to 0 percent in 1980 to 12 percent in the present day. That percentage is 21 percent in Chad and 20 percent in Tanzania, according to the Pew Research survey.
While Iran may gain implicit influence over the African continent’s growing Shiite population, the Islamic Republic has not refrained from engaging in more direct activity. Inside sources claim that Hezbollah, the Iran-funded regime governing Lebanon, has been running centers in Nigerian population centers to train both religiously and militarily Shiite Muslims. Meanwhile, The Telegraph claims that since 2019 Iran has been funding terror cells in a variety of African countries, including Sudan, Chad, Ghana, Niger, The Gambia, and the Central African Republic. Whereas Israel and the United States have channeled influence through investment and economic activity, Iran has seemingly relied on social-religious ties in order to popularize the regime and its global terrorist network.
With the backdrop of a faltering Iranian economy, it makes all the more sense why Iran would resort to alternative means of influence. The world’s second most sanctioned country behind Russia, Iran is facing upwards of over 40 percent inflation, an unemployment rate of 10.8 percent, and a crisis of impoverished citizens selling organs as the rentier state crumbles under the weight of Western sanctions. Thus, while Iranian influence has found a channel through the mobilization of Shiite Muslims in Africa, a crisis-ridden economy may be preventing the Islamic Republic from finding much-needed leverage over African countries’ industries. If the United States and Western allies can recognize this, and utilize their superior economic and financial power to win over African nations found in the crossfire, remains to be seen.