August 03, 2010
Ahmadinejad in West Africa: What Iranian Outreach to the Region Reveals about Tehran's Foreign Policy
Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continued Iranian efforts to cultivate relationships with West African countries in a trip to the region earlier this July. These countries, while largely friendly to Iran, have not yet fallen under Tehran’s sway. Iran rightly views such partners as important to advancing its power and securing its nuclear weapons program.
The Islamic Republic’s soft-power activities in West Africa have yielded successes. In a November 2009 UN vote on the human rights situation in Iran, almost all West African nations maintained their previous positions (which were primarily in support of Iran), while several other African and Middle Eastern nations took stronger stances due to Iran’s June 2009 postelection crackdown. Beyond the UN, Tehran has built an alliance with Senegal and encouraged and exploited an anti-Israel trend in Mauritania. Iran also almost signed a nuclear deal with Nigeria in 2008.
Iran has dramatically increased its economic activity in the region and laid the groundwork for further expansion: the value of 2009 exports to Côte d’Ivoire, Niger, and Senegal was roughly 2,700, 2,800, and 3,600 percent higher (respectively) than 2000 exports, and the Islamic Republic has planned future deals with a number of other West African nations.
Tehran has also experienced setbacks in the region: Nigeria voted for sanctions on Iran at the UN in June 2010; Mali, Mauritania, and other West African nations continue to cooperate on counterterrorism with the United States; West African popular opinion is far more pro-American than pro-Iranian; and Nigeria remains the largest U.S. trading partner in sub-Saharan Africa and a critical supplier for America’s energy needs.
A lack of American attention to West Africa allows Iran to continue to expand its influence and undercut Western interests. The people and states of the region view the United States favorably and share interests with it, but the United States will have to provide alternatives to Iranian support should it wish to see a reduction in West African relations with Iran.
- The case of Iran’s outreach to West Africa reveals a four-stage approach by which Iran is attempting to build and exploit soft power: through culture, diplomacy, economics, and defense. Iran’s history in the region also shows what priorities Iran values in its foreign policy and the characteristics of countries it targets. These findings can assist understanding of Iran’s overall foreign policy machinations and its bilateral relations in other regions of the world.
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