Iran has long paid attention to Africa. In an address to this week’s meeting in Tehran of the Non-Aligned Movement, which includes almost every African nation, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Iran was dedicated to African development, a sentiment that echoes previous statements to the African Union and a policy dating back more than a quarter century to the time of the Shah.
On the sidelines of the Tehran meetings this week, Uganda’s foreign minister met with Iran’s oil minister, Gholam-Hossein Nozari, to discuss Iranian assistance in developing a large petroleum reserve discovered by Canadian oil company Heritage Oil in central Africa’s Lake Albert, according the Iranian state-run PressTV.
The world is increasingly interested in the African market, whether to extract oil, natural gas and minerals, or to take advantage of the continent as a destination for exported goods. In recent years, China has used its economic and industrial power to compete for energy resources, often in exchange for infrastructure and aid projects. The United States, for its part, has acknowledged the continent’s growing strategic importance by creating an Africa Command to coordinate U.S. military activity there.
As a source of cheap labor and construction material, as well as being home to some of the world’s largest uranium mines, Africa is also very attractive to an Iran suffering international sanctions.
The United States and the United Nations have instituted sanctions against Iran due to its continued uranium enrichment program. Iran has insisted it is free to master the nuclear fuel cycle, which would not only allow it to enrich uranium for use as fuel in civilian nuclear power generators, but also enable the country to produce material it could use for nuclear weapons.
The U.S. and U.N. sanctions have taken a toll on Iran’s oil and natural gas industries and its economy in general. Holding the world’s second-largest natural gas reserves and crude oil reserves, Iran is hobbled by an aging production and refinery infrastructure. Its unemployment rate is estimated to be between 11 percent and 25 percent, and recent gasoline rationing was met with violent demonstrations.
Against this backdrop, Iranian government and business has been reaching out to Africa. In August, a 30-person Iranian business delegation met with officials in Benin, Ivory Coast, Mali, Cameroon and Liberia, and went away with promises to increase trade and development, according to Iran’s PressTV. Iran is interested in construction, banking, pharmaceuticals, and auto manufacturing in these West African countries.
In September 2006 Ahmadinejad visited Senegal in a trip that also included stops in Cuba and Venezuela. In Dakar Ahmadinejad discussed the two countries' energy resources, as well as possible collaboration in the manufacturing industry.
Not only is Iran interested in conventional economic endeavors in Africa, but it may also be interested in the continent as a source of uranium for use in nuclear power, and potentially nuclear weapons. While Iran has its own reserves of uranium ore, which it has been mining since at least 2003, Tehran’s involvement in Africa’s uranium mining may be troubling to Western nations concerned with the nuclear proliferation threat posed by Iran.
The Iranian government owns a 15 percent share in Namibia’s Rossing uranium mine, the world’s largest open-pit uranium mine, although the uranium produced is not sold to Iran, according to the company’s Web site. In 2006 the mine produced 12 million tons of uranium ore, according to the company.
Ahmadinejad made a visit to Algeria in early August and called for even closer ties between the two countries, according to the Iranian state-run Islamic Republic News Agency. Algiers and Tehran are both developing immense oil and natural gas reserves. While it is not known if they talked about nuclear power, the two countries share nuclear ambitions, although at vastly different levels.
Algeria has two small reactors, 15 MW and 1 MW, both under International Atomic Energy Agency watch, according to the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, but the country is estimated to have 56,000 tons of uranium deposits.
Iran’s interest in Africa may not only be driven by practical business reasons. A desire to spread its own brand of Shia Islam may also motivate Tehran, according to James Phillips, a Middle East analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank.
“Iran’s radical regime sees itself as the vanguard of Islamic revolution throughout the Muslim world and it seeks to expand its influence, particularly in opposition to Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi influence. So there is kind of an ideological competition going on with Saudi Arabia, as well as ideological confrontation with the United States and the West,” Phillips said.