This report examines the implications of the political, economic, and military involvement by Iran and its proxies in the Sahel region of Sub-Saharan Africa. To examine these issues, the report’s sections define the Sahel region, explain the reasons that aid and involvement by external powers are welcomed by the local governments, analyze the nature of Iran’s involvement within the context of the Sunni-Shi’a rivalry in general and how it plays out in the Saudi-Iranian rivalry at the local level, and prospects for the future.
The Sahel’s 3,860 kilometer long semi-arid region of western and north-central Africa consists of 11 countries: Burkina Faso, Chad, Eritrea, The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, and Sudan. Note that in some accounts Nigeria is not included as a Sahel country, while in others it is. With Nigeria excluded from this listing, an estimated more than 135 million people live in the Sahel.
The Sahel’s countries are characterized by rapidly growing populations, extreme poverty, worsening climate change, food and nutrition crises, violent insurgencies by extremist religious groups (as well as criminal gangs), political instability, economic underdevelopment, and other systemic crises. Confronted by such significant challenges, the region’s governments seek foreign assistance to address these problems in all their dimensions.
Shi’as and Sunnis
To understand the wider context of Iran’s involvement in the Sahel (as well as in Africa), particularly why it has generated a rivalry with Sunni Arab states, it is necessary to explain how Iran as a Shi’a state is perceived in the predominantly Sunni Muslim Sahel countries. The Sunnis (“People of the Tradition”) and the Shi’as (a contraction of “Shiaat Ali,” “partisans of Ali”) are the two major branches of Islam. They share many fundamental beliefs and practices, including the supremacy of Islamic law over society, but they differ in doctrine, ritual, law, theology, and religious organization, especially the supremacy of religious leaders over society. The Shi’as broke away from the mainstream Islam in the seventh century, at the outset of the Muslim religion’s spread in the Middle East and elsewhere. Their conflict with the dominant Sunnis, who comprise an estimated 85 to 90 percent of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims (Shi’a comprise about 10 percent of Muslims), originated over the succession from the Prophet Muhammad, who died in 632 AD. Sunnis believe that any Muslim could succeed Muhammad, while Shi’as believe that only members of the Prophet’s family were the rightful heirs, particularly Ali, his son-in-law and cousin. With the assassination of Ali in 661 AD and the killings of other successors whom the Shi’as regarded as rightful heirs to the Caliphate, these events gave rise to the Shi’a concept of martyrdom and the rituals of grieving. In countries which have been governed by Sunnis, Shi’as tend to constitute the poorest sections of society, who perceive themselves as victims of discrimination and oppression. This is exacerbated by Sunni extremists, such as the Salafists who constitute al Qaida and the Islamic State, as well as Boko Haram in Nigeria and al Shabaab in Somalia, who denounce the Shi’as as heretics who should be killed. It is within this context that the rivalry between Shi’a Iran and its Sunni competitors, particularly as led by Saudi Arabia, plays out in the Sahel and elsewhere in Africa.
Shi’as in the Sahel
There are Shi’a communities in the Sahel where they form a minority among the region’s Muslims, who are mostly Sunni. Most of the region’s Shi’as are originally from Lebanon. It is difficult to estimate the size of Shia’s in the Sahel, but it is reported there are Shi’a communities in Guinea, Mali, Mauritania Niger, northern Nigeria, and Senegal. In Nigeria, which has the largest concentration of Shia’s in West Africa, one percent of the country’s Muslims are Shi’as. In Senegal, Shi’as constitute an estimated 90 percent of the country’s 30,000 Lebanese community. In Sudan, the majority of the country’s Muslims are Sunni, with a Shi’a minority who reside in Khartoum, the country’s capital.
The earlier waves of Shi’a immigrants first came to Africa some 150 years ago from Lebanon, with the next largest immigration wave occurring during the Lebanese Civil War in the mid-1970s, when the country’s instability led to an exodus of several hundred thousand of its citizens. Although the majority is not considered especially active politically in the Sahel (as well as in the rest of Africa), many expatriate Lebanese support the Lebanese Hizballah (one of Iran’s militant proxies in the region) because it defends Shi’a interests in Lebanon and against adversaries such as Israel.
Iran’s objectives for intervening in the Sahel are manifold. They include enhancing its international legitimacy by gaining support for its foreign policies, particularly in enabling it to break out of the international isolation generated by its subversive activities on behalf of militant Shi’a groups worldwide and nuclear weapons development activities. They also include gaining an upper hand in its rivalry with Saudi Arabia and the West for influence in the Sahel (and elsewhere in Africa). Another objective is to spread its Shi’ite ideology to growing audiences in the Sahel. Other objectives include increasing the markets for its commercial exports, as well as enabling it to import a spectrum of materials essential for its economy.
The current phase of Iran’s diplomatic relations in Africa dates to the early 1980s, following the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Prior to this period, during the Cold War, Iran was part of the bloc of United States-aligned states. After the Islamic Revolution, Iran began spreading radical Shi’ite theological teachings in West Africa/Sahel through cultural, diplomatic, and media initiatives, which met some resistance from pro-Saudi Arabia-led countries and groups active in the region.
Iran maintains bilateral diplomatic relations with Sahel countries. As part of its diplomatic outreach to the Sahel, numerous Iranian leaders have visited the Sahel, with Sahelian leaders also visiting Tehran. Prominent past Iranian leaders to visit Sahel capitals included Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, Sayyed Muhammad Khatami, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and others.
In the current period there has been an intensification of bilateral Iranian – Sahelian leaders’ visits, such as the following:
- In early March 2019 Iranian President Hassan Rouhani met the new Burkina Faso non-resident Ambassador to Tehran and told him that Iran was keen on cementing its ties with the country, including assisting Burkina Faso in countering terrorism.
- In July 2016, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visited Mali, where he met with Mali Prime Minister Modibo Keita. At the meeting he hailed the good relations between the two countries and said Iran was ready to cooperate with Mali in fighting terrorism and extremism, as well as drug trafficking. He also stated his delegation was keen to promote economic ties in fields such as agriculture, health, education, energy, technology and banking sectors. In January 2017, an Iranian parliamentary delegation participated in the 12th Summit of the Islamic Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), which was held in Mali, with the senior member of the Iranian delegation expressing the home that the summit would help to strengthen cooperation between Iran and Mali.
- Iran has close relations with Niger. In early April 2013, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Niger, as part of a visit to three African nations. It was not known if the Iranian President had raised the issue of Niger’s uranium deposits, one of Iran’s needs in developing its nuclear program. In late October 2017, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met with Brigi Rafini, Niger’s prime minister of Niger, in Niamey, where they discussed expanding the bilateral relations between the two countries, including in the economic field. In early May 2019, the Vice-President of the Nigerien National Assembly along with members of Niger-Iran Parliamentary Friendship Group at the African country’s legislature, met with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Tehran. They discussed the ties between the two countries, including strengthening them in the field of telecommunications, as well as academic, political and parliamentary relations between Tehran and Niamey.
Iran perceives itself as the spiritual leader of the Shi’ite communities around the world. Its religious agents proselytize among Shi’ite and Sunni communities to expand the size and local influence of Shi’ite communities in targeted countries. Iranian embassies’ cultural and religious attaches also play a role in proselytizing initiatives, such as establishing Shi’a cultural centers and sponsoring the visits of Iranian religious clerics in the countries where they have diplomatic relations.
Iran’s economic relations with Sahel countries are three-fold. First, with Sahel countries possessing natural resources such as gold, iron, copper, diamond, platinum, phosphate, and uranium, accessing these resources is essential to Iran’s own economic needs.
Second, poverty in the Sahel Region and West Africa also present opportunities for Iran to increase its influence by providing economic assistance to these countries, including assisting with infrastructural projects.
Finally, these economic ties also create markets for Iranian products, particularly the oil that is under global sanctions. Reportedly, Iran has earned substantial revenue from the implementation of joint projects, including facilities in Sahel countries that refine Iranian oil. As an example of such ties, in 2018-2019, Iran exported 1,085 tons of non-oil commodities worth $1.15 million to Niger. No imports were registered from Niger to Iran that year.
Iran utilizes local proxies in the region, such as Lebanese Hizballah, to advance its radicalization activities in the region, as well as its anti-Western rhetoric and hostility towards Israel. There are accusations that some Shi’a local Lebanese businessmen raise funds for Hizballah (which portrays itself as a humanitarian organization), making them liable to being sanctioned by the United States government. In October 2010, Nigerian authorities seized an Iranian weapons shipment on board a container ship carrying crates of rocket launchers and heavy mortars, which was impounded in the port of Lagos. In June 2013, a Hizballah cell was uncovered in the northern Nigerian city of Kano, with two Nigerians charged with helping Iranians plan attacks on Israeli targets.
One of the largest Shi’a communities is in Nigeria. It is also one of the most conflict-ridden Sunni-Shi’a rivalries in Africa. Ibrahim al-Zakzaky, a radical Iranian-trained Shi’a cleric and leader of Nigeria’s Shi’a community, was severely wounded during a crackdown by the Nigerian security forces on his movement, called the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), in late 2015. This crackdown, which resulted from the IMN’s resistance against Nigerian army officials in the area where al-Zakzaky’s headquarters was located, resulted in his arrest as well as the killings of an estimated 300 IMN members. The conflict further escalated in October 2018 when several dozen IMN members were killed in Abuja where demonstrating for al-Zakzaky’s release from detention.
The IMN was established in the early 1980s in the wake of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. It is reported to be supported by a large segment of the country’s five million Shi’ite population. As part of its radicalization activities, Iran subsidized the travel of many Nigerian Shi’a students to Iran where they underwent military and religious training.
It is reported that the Lebanese Hizballah has provided ideological and military training to Nigerian Shi’ites in Lebanon.
Iranian – Saudi Rivalry
The 1979 revolution in Iran launched a radical Shi’a Islamist agenda that presented a challenge to conservative Sunni regimes, particularly in the Gulf. It spread to the Sahel region, as well. Stemming Iranian influence in this region and globally remains one of the cardinal pivots of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy.
In the political sphere, to compete for influence, then, Saudi Arabia has gone beyond economic projects and religious programming by establishing a coalition with Mauritania and Senegal and is also preparing a new coalition with Libya and Chad. The presidents of Senegal and Mauritania travelled to Riyadh in April 2015, and Senegal has committed to sending hundreds of troops to the Asefah Al-Hazm military operation under Saudi command in Yemen.
This was followed by the termination by Sudan of its alliance with Iran in early January 2016, following the overthrow of former President Omar al-Bashir, who had ruled the country for 30 years and had been a close Iranian ally. Iranian diplomats were expelled, with Sudan joining the Saudi-led coalition in fighting the Iranian-backed Houti insurgents in Yemen. Sudan also hoped that leaving the Iranian “Resistance Axis” would lead to substantial Saudi aid and lifting U.S. economic sanctions against the country.
To counter Iran, in the religious sphere, Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies broadcast their brand of Salafism in the Sunni countries, including those in the Sahel.
In the military sphere, Saudi Arabia was instrumental in establishing an Islamic military coalition to provide logistical, intelligence and training to a West African/Sahel counter-terrorism force. In addition to countering Islamist extremist groups, such as ones linked to al Qaida or the Islamic State, this alliance is also seen as a vehicle for countering the growing influence of Iran in the region. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates provided about $150 million to the G5 Sahel force, which is composed of the armies of Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad. The UAE has promised to establish a “school of war” in Mauritania.
Also established was a parallel humanitarian assistance initiative, as well as Saudi investments into the public and private sectors in West Africa and the Sahel. Thus, with Saudi Arabia and the UAE looking at the Sahel region as a major source of investment, this is being done for political and strategic reasons, as well, within the overall context of countering the spread of Iranian influence in the region.
It is expected that the Iranian pattern of covertly seeking asymmetrical gains in exporting its Shi’a revolutionary zeal within the Sahel countries while overtly striving for diplomatic gains through conventional diplomatic relations will continue. It is therefore important to monitor Iranian initiatives to expand its clerical networks in Sahel countries, with such programs organized by Iranian clergy under the direction of the Ministry of Islamic Guidance and the country’s local embassies as they visit these societies and conduct meetings for local Muslim clerics and attempt to recruit candidates for training in Iran.
Iran’s economic relations with Sahel countries are expected to grow at current rates. While local Shi’a business communities might support Iran and Hizballah, many are likely also concerned that such associations might limit their own business and political connections by antagnozing Sunni commercial interests, particularly the Saudis, or pro-Western interests, as well as damaging their role as a racial and religious minority in the Sahel. As a result, they are likely to keep out of controversial political activities by pro-Iranian interests in their countries. At the same time, they are likely to serve as intermediaries between Iran and their government leaders.
Continued regional instability is likely to perpetuate the opportunities for increasing Iranian influence in the Sahel, particularly given the inability of local governments to detect and control such covert activity by Iranian agents and proxies, such as Hizballah and other local extremist Shi’a groups. Local governments should monitor Iranian initiatives to fund the theological education of students at Iranian institutions, whether these take place in their own countries or in Iran, as such initiatives are intended to promote the potential rise of militant advocates of Iran’s revolutionary ideology in influential leadership positions in local academic institutions, government agencies, and other sector, which would be accompanied by their subsequent push for pro-Iranian, anti-Saudi Arabian, and anti-Western policies. On the other hand, with the widespread appeal in the region of extremist Sunni groups, such as those affiliated with al Qaida and the Islamic State, it is less likely for the radicalized Shi’a view of Islam to capture the imagination of the Sahel’s growing young population, so such a radicalizing threat is less likely in the short-, medium-, or long-terms.
Dr. Joshua Sinai, a consultant to FireWatch Solutions, is a Washington, DC-based consultant on national security issues.