Over the past two years, as the United States and the European Union have invested in the revival of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the Iranian leadership has opted to solidify its non-Western foreign policy approach. In line with this approach, President Ebrahim Raisi embarked on a three-country trip to Africa in mid-July, marking the first time an Iranian president has undertaken such a visit in over 11 years. Earlier in the month, Iranian officials reported that the Islamic Republic’s exports to the continent had increased by 100% over the past year. It is now clear that engagement with Africa will be a major foreign policy focus under the Raisi administration. However, this is not the first time that Iran has taken such an approach to the continent. Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad implemented a similar policy from 2005 to 2013, although it did not yield significant results. This raises the question of whether, a decade on, Raisi’s Africa policy will prove any more successful.
The roots of renewed engagement with Africa
Since Raisi assumed office in 2021, the Iranian leadership has pursued a deliberate strategy of strengthening its non-Western foreign policy approach. Raisi began by fostering closer relations with Russia, China, and countries in Latin America. But unlike during the Ahmadinejad presidency, non-Western powers have proved more receptive this time around and welcomed Tehran’s foreign policy shift. Notably, Iran has obtained permanent membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, who was invited to a meeting of the BRICS grouping of leading emerging economies in June, said its members agreed to support Iran’s membership. Simultaneously, Tehran has sought to scale back its relations with Western powers, particularly by downplaying the importance of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the 2015 nuclear deal is officially known. In fact, one of Raisi’s main slogans during the 2021 presidential campaign was that he would not stop the country’s progress while waiting for the JCPOA’s revival. This strategy aims to demonstrate the government’s view that the West is in decline and will not hinder Iran’s efforts to advance its nuclear program or circumvent Western sanctions. In fact, this approach reflects a calculated decision taken by the Iranian leadership and influenced by its perception of President Joe Biden’s foreign policy.
Over the past two years, U.S. officials have vocally criticized the American withdrawal from the JCPOA in 2018 and asserted that Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign has failed. The Biden administration has sought to convey its goodwill to persuade Iran to revive the JCPOA. However, this signal, coupled with shortcomings in sanctions enforcement, has instead emboldened the Iranian authorities to ramp up their evasion of sanctions and convinced non-Western countries that engaging with Iran is unlikely to have significant consequences. This has led the Raisi administration to once again invest in engagement with Africa in the expectation that, unlike under Ahmadinejad, its outreach will pay dividends this time around. In this context, it is no surprise that the Iranian government has portrayed Raisi’s trip to Africa as a clear sign that its diplomacy extends beyond a “specific agreement” — i.e. the nuclear deal — with the hope of making significant achievements. The Islamic Republic aims to signal that the world is not limited to the West and Iran can expand its ties with “independent countries.” Thus, Africa has once again emerged as an appealing focus that can assist the Raisi administration in bolstering its non-Western foreign policy.
The Raisi administration’s efforts in Africa
Africa’s diverse economic needs provide the Raisi administration with a significant opportunity to expand Iran’s exports to the continent. In July 2022, Iranian Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian announced that during a 10-month period, 47 official delegations from Africa had visited Iran to boost economic cooperation. Over the past two years, the foreign minister, his deputy for economic diplomacy, and his political deputy have all made visits to various African countries, such as Mali, Tanzania, South Africa, and Niger, attempting to expand political and economic ties. Additionally, in March 2023, the inaugural Economic Cooperation Summit between Iran and West African countries took place. During the event, President Raisi emphasized Iran’s willingness and commitment to substantially expand cooperation with African countries across various sectors.
There has already been significant progress on the commercial front, with Iranian exports to Africa reaching $1.28 billion last year, up from $579 million in 2020. The growth in some targeted areas has been even greater, with Iran’s exports of technical and engineering services to Africa increasing by 700% in 2022. According to Iranian media reports, the Islamic Republic aims to achieve a tenfold increase in trade with African countries, reaching $12 billion, with the initial target set at $5 billion in two years’ time. During Raisi’s July visit to Kenya, Uganda, and Zimbabwe, he signed a total of 21 agreements in a variety of sectors, including oil and energy, telecommunication and information technology, agriculture, and medicine, calling the continent a “land of opportunities.”
Raisi’s administration is also seeking to gain political benefits by strengthening its relations with Africa. For example, Iran, the official daily newspaper of the Iranian government, has claimed that expanding ties with African countries will enable Iran to seek membership in BRICS, pointing to South Africa’s role in the group.
Differences between Ahmadinejad’s and Raisi’s Africa policies
Despite experiencing substantial growth, the volume of trade between Iran and African countries has yet to reach a significant level and remains insufficient to address Iran’s severe economic crisis. While this may suggest that Raisi’s outreach to Africa is likely to face the same fate as Ahmadinejad’s, there are domestic and international factors at play that could lead to a different outcome this time around.
In the Iranian domestic sphere, recent developments suggest that the emphasis on Africa can now be regarded as part of a long-term strategic approach. The Iranian leadership views the eight-year “pro-Western” administration of former President Hassan Rouhani as an unequivocal failure that had a devastating impact on the country. The heightened election engineering model implemented in 2021 exposed the Islamic Republic’s unparalleled resolve to avoid electing candidates with “pro-Western” perspectives. This shift was aimed at creating full alignment and coordination within the regime’s center of power, including the supreme leader, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and the presidency. There are no indications that this stance will change for the foreseeable future. Therefore, it is unlikely that Raisi’s Africa engagement will face a domestic challenge as Ahmadinejad did, suggesting that it is poised to become a long-term approach with backing from the Islamic Republic’s center of power.
More importantly, geopolitical developments have also resulted in a more favorable environment for Iran when it comes to Africa. Compared to 2005-13, American hegemony has run into greater challenges, giving Tehran an opportunity to increasingly evade U.S. pressure while bolstering its international self-assurance. U.S. deterrence against Iran has been challenged under the Biden administration by its keen pursuit of the JCPOA’s revival. This has been perceived as a sign of American weakness in Tehran, allowing the Iranian leadership to not take U.S. pressure very seriously. In March 2023, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stated that the West imposed pressure on Iran to isolate it, but that this effort had failed: “We have not faced isolation; on the contrary, we have proactively established robust connections. Developing strong relationships with Africa and Latin America is one of our strategic plans, and we are actively pursuing this agenda.” The Islamic Republic has capitalized on areas where it perceives weakness in U.S. deterrence, and it expects a similar trend to play out in its relations with Africa. For example, the IRGC-affiliated Fars News agency has highlighted Africa as a valuable source of gold, suggesting that Iran could circumvent sanctions by exporting a range of goods to African countries and receiving gold in return. According to the article, this strategy has proven successful with Venezuela.
Therefore, both domestic and international developments suggest that Raisi’s engagement with Africa has a greater chance of proving successful and enduring. In the short term, the regime can benefit from its new focus on the continent in two ways: Firstly, by expanding trade, which along with fostering economic relations with other non-Western countries, serves as a crucial strategy to safeguard Iran’s economy from complete collapse under Western sanctions. While this type of cooperation is likely insufficient to alleviate the economic crisis, it plays a pivotal role in preventing a broader and more catastrophic collapse of the economy — a goal of paramount importance for the regime’s leaders. Secondly, the surge in trade with African countries could be instrumental in facilitating Iranian efforts to normalize economic cooperation with some non-Western countries despite U.S. sanctions. Having rapidly expanded trade with Africa, the Iranian leadership can be optimistic about doing the same with other countries. All of this could ultimately solidify the regime’s conviction that there is no immediate need to expedite the revival of the JCPOA or any agreement with the West. It reinforces the Iranian leadership’s calculation that it is the West, rather than Iran, that is in urgent need of the agreement. This will lead the Islamic Republic to demand substantial and permanent concessions in its negotiations with the U.S. and the EU.
The Iranian leadership’s resolute choice to pursue a non-Western foreign policy approach has reinvigorated Tehran’s efforts to prioritize relations with Africa. The recent visit of the Iranian president to Africa, after more than decade, along with the notable increase in trade with the continent in the past few years, indicate progress on Tehran’s agenda. While a major political and economic breakthrough may not in the cards, sustained engagement reinforces the Iranian government’s belief that Western pressure can be evaded and that it is possible to pursue an anti-Western foreign policy without suffering severe consequences. Therefore, Tehran seems likely to continue strengthening ties with African countries as part of its long-term vision.
Meanwhile, the critical determinant in the fate of Iran’s non-Western foreign policy approach, and particularly Raisi’s Africa engagement, lies not in the decisions made in Tehran but rather in Washington. President Biden’s Iran policy has created an environment that allows the Islamic Republic to disregard U.S. pressure and attempt to expand its ties with non-Western countries. Recently, the Biden administration has increasingly signaled that the revival of the JCPOA is no longer on the table. In the meantime, the U.S. has embarked on efforts to bring about the normalization of ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel. These developments suggest that the U.S. is willing to reshape its deterrence policy toward Iran. Under such circumstances, the primary challenge for the White House is to change the well-established perception among the Iranian leadership that President Biden lacks a Plan B.