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Iran’s Scramble for Sub-Saharan Africa

Fueled by the Iranian oil revenues, Tehran, under both the rule of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1941-1979) and since 1979 the Islamic Republic of Iran, has intervened in the affairs of sub-Saharan Africa. The Shah’s policy was motivated by a ‘defensive’ anti-communist/anti-radicalism containment posture. Conversely, the Islamic Republic of Iran adopted an ‘offensive’ or disruptive policy to alter a political status quo deemed hostile to the survival of the Islamic Republic of Iran. To understand Iran’s scramble to secure its interests in sub-Saharan Africa, four periods will be examined in this analysis: i) the Shah and containment, 1953-1979; ii) the Islamic Republic of Iran’s diplomatic ‘offensive,’ 1980-2001; iii) the Islamic Republic of Iran seeking to ‘escape’ international isolation, 2002-2010; and iv) the Saudi-Iranian Cold War, 2011-2018.

Iran s Scramble for Sub-Saharan Africa
Western Somalia Liberation Front guerillas were trained at a military camp in Somalia as the war between Somalia and Ethiopia for the control of Ogaden (1977-1978) continued. ALAIN NOGUES / Sygma via Getty Images
 

 

Introduction

Tehran’s attempt to extend Iranian influence in sub-Saharan Africa dates back more than forty years.1 Iran’s capacity to influence events in the region to pursue Iranian political, strategic, economic, and/or ideological objectives can be attributed in large part to the increase in Iranian oil revenues at the beginning of the 1970s and was bolstered by the dramatic (almost four-fold) increase in the price of oil following the October 1973 Arab-Israeli War. In short, Iranian oil revenues have encouraged and allowed Tehran, under the rule of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1941-1979) and since 1979 as the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI), to intervene in sub-Saharan African affairs. One striking difference to note: The Shah’s activities seemed to be motivated largely by a ‘defensive’ containment posture to maintain the political status quo in the region versus the more ‘offensive’ or disruptive goals of the Islamic Republic.

Iranian policy toward sub-Saharan Africa under the Shah focused mainly on South Africa along with Ethiopia and Somalia in the Horn of Africa. With respect to South Africa, Iranian oil sales were justified and motivated –not only economically– but strategically as well: to help prop-up and support South Africa’s staunchly anti-communist apartheid regime. Containment of radicalism and communism in northeast Africa would also underlie the Shah’s support for the pro-Western regime of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie and then Somalia following Mogadishu’s break with Moscow in 1977. In the case of the Horn, the Shah’s ‘defensive’ anti-radical/communist containment policy led Iran to supply weapons and provide political support to Mogadishu during the 1977-1978 Ogaden War between the Soviet/Cuban-backed Ethiopian regime and Somalia.

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