Africa: A New Front in the US-Iranian Cold War?

It is no secret the US and Iran are engaged in a regional Cold War throughout the greater Middle East from Herat to Beirut. Iran has become increasingly geo-politically isolated in the Persian Gulf, Levant, and Central Asia. Suppression of largely Shi’a protesters in the Gulf kingdoms, surging democratic protests in the Levant, and North African revolutions are quickly changing the geo-political status quo. As the rhetoric and political action seemingly continue to build over on-going Iranian nuclear ambitions it is worth looking at proxy theaters that may see secondary or diversionary action related to the core issues of the Iranian problem for Western, American, and Gulf based policy makers.

Additionally, these events bring into sharp focus the Iranian government’s own maltreatment of its citizens. In the face of setbacks for Iran could Africa become the next arena in this competition? Many Iranian political and diplomatic activities seem geared to build local support through conflict resolution, religious education, and economic aid activities. Recent events seemingly indicate this competition is taking on a decidedly more ominous tone, particularly in East and West Africa.

Longstanding links between East Africa and the Gulf provide fertile opportunity for Iranian intrigue against US interests. Established Islamist networks in East Africa and the Horn of Africa can provide a military capability to attack US interests. Although, Al Shabbab and East Africa Al Qaeda are Sunni organizations, like in Afghanistan, Iranian interlocutors have shown themselves amenable to supporting Sunni Islamist movements. Already long standing Iranian support networks exist throughout West Africa, centered on the region’s Lebanese Diaspora. However, West Africa does not have a large US footprint, despite ongoing activities to counter Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Unlike in West Africa, in East Africa Lebanese and Shi’a communities are small. A growing Lebanese business presence, attracted by quick profits linked to corrupt governments, provides an effective cover for Iranian use of Hizballah, Tehran’s favorite tool for conducting plausibly deniable operations abroad. Iranian diplomatic cover often functions to provide liaison between local networks and Tehran, in particular via the Revolutionary Guards Quds Force. This model was effectively used by Iran to attack the Israeli Embassy in Argentina in 1992. East Africa is also the center of the US’ war on extremist terrorism in Africa. This situation presents a target rich environment that exposes little in the way of Iranian interests to direct retaliation.

The political situation in Yemen is also influenced by events in the Horn of Africa. The conflict between Yemen’s traditional centers of political power is occurring simultaneously with the long-running Yemeni government and Houthi conflict. Iran has repeatedly attempted to diplomatically insert itself into the Yemeni conflict on the side of the Houthis. It must be assumed that covert military assistance from Tehran is also occurring. There have also been reports of Eritrean arms playing a role in this conflict.

Eritrean involvement potentially draws in the regional powers Kenya and Ethiopia, both of which play prominent roles in the US counterterrorism strategy for East Africa. Their own security interests are threatened by links between Eritrea and Yemeni rebels. Eritrea is also suspected of directly supporting Al Shabaab, the region’s major security threat. There is also some question as to what degree Somali immigrants are fusing links between Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Al Shabaab. The US currently estimates AQAP poses a severe threat to US interests while Al Shabaab continues to expand its operations as highlighted by the 2009 World Cup bombings in Kampala, Uganda. All of these facts make Iranian involvement, even on the periphery, a concern for US policy makers.

Iran’s involvement in West Africa after a series of Tehran-linked arms shipments to various regional rebel groups was exposed. These large shipments of weapons were apparently destined for northern Nigerian Islamist militants, Niger River delta separatists, and rebels in Senegal’s Casamance region. Allegedly Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Qods Force (IRGC-QF) operatives under cover as Iranian businessmen facilitated these shipments. The exposure of these shipments caused a sharp diplomatic response; both Gambia and Senegal broke diplomatic ties with Iran. Nigeria formally protested to the Iranian Foreign Ministry and demanded an explanation after overtures were made in attempt by Iran to keep news of the shipments quiet. The region’s large Lebanese diasporas also provide a very fertile base of support. Where there is a large Lebanese diasporas there is some presence by Hizballah, even if only logistical. Where there is Hizballah there is most likely a method for IRGC-QF to utilize these same networks.

The targeted recipients of these apparent Iranian military shipments should not be surprising. Nigeria and Senegal both are major African partners for the West in general and the United States in particular. Nigeria is the fourth ranked exporter of crude oil and fifth ranked petroleum exporter to the US, the quality of its ‘sweet crude’ is on par with Gulf producers. The effects of oil’s price per barrel on recession recovery and economic growth are well documented. This fact is as well known in Tehran as it is in Washington. While Senegal is not a major energy producer it is a relatively stable democracy in what is otherwise a volatile region. The civil wars in the Mano River region and the AQIM threat in the Sahel have not grossly impacted Senegal. However, there is a long running separatist conflict between the central government in Dakar and its Casamance region. Any destabilization of US aligned countries would be viewed as success by Tehran.

As Tehran feels the pressure of domestic protests and public diplomatic humiliations it may be forced to look outside its usual ‘near abroad’ to find levers against the US. Iranian interests in Africa are not all related to its on-going cold war with the US but they conveniently support its search for ways to spread Iranian influence in areas where there is no US presence. This fits with Iran’s strategy of non-direct confrontation. Iran has proven itself able to exploit voids where there are no US activities. The opportunity presented by rising political unrest in East and West Africa seems to be proving too tempting.

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A couple thoughts on Iran in Senegal- Iran has contributed to the development of economy of Senegal with the SenIran vehicles built in Senegal. Although pervasive in Dakar, many taxi drivers with SenIran vehicles don't like them because of their poor gas mileage and frequent breakdowns. Pres Wade, the former President of Senegal, thought he had enough influence to go to Iran to negotiate for the release of the American hikers. However, Senegal-Iran relations soured after a shipment of arms from Iran to the Gambia was intercepted by authorities in Nigeria in 2010. The Gambia borders the Casamance region of Senegal where separatist groups have been fighting for independence and in 2010 separatist attacks increased.