Another Crescent: Iran’s Brewing Influence in the Sahel Region

Iran’s influence in the Sahel region is a complex and multifaceted issue that will continue to evolve in the coming years. Iran’s influence in the Sahel region is expanding due to a combination of political, economic, and military strategies. The Sahel region, which encompasses 11 countries in West and North-Central Africa, faces significant challenges such as population growth, poverty, climate change, and violent insurgencies. To address these issues, local governments are seeking foreign assistance.

While the Iranian opponent, the United States and Israel remain fixed on the potential dangers emanating from the Iranian-dominated Shia crescent spanning from Lebanon to Yemen, Tehran is discreetly establishing the foundation for a second Iranian crescent that will soon present a significant peril to the U.S. interests in the Sahel region. However, within Africa’s strategically important Sahel region, Iran is capitalising on the vulnerabilities of Western powers to enhance its economic and military sway further, gain access to vital resources, destabilise moderate governments, and subvert the process of Israeli-Arab normalization. 

Moreover, Iran has several objectives in the Sahel region. Firstly, it aims to enhance its international legitimacy and gain an advantage in its rivalry with Saudi Arabia and the West. Additionally, Iran seeks to spread its Shi’ite ideology and increase markets for its commercial exports.

The Sahel region is home to significant Shi’a communities, particularly in Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, northern Nigeria, and Senegal. These communities are often considered a minority among the predominantly Sunni population, and their economic and political connections are influenced by their relations with Iran and other regional powers.

Iran maintains bilateral diplomatic relations with Sahel countries and has engaged in numerous high-level visits and agreements on cooperation in various fields, including counterterrorism, economic development, and education.

Economically, Iran aims to access the region’s natural resources, such as gold, uranium, and other valuable minerals, to support its economic needs. It also seeks to provide economic assistance to Sahel countries, including infrastructure projects, to increase its influence.

Furthermore, the recent wave of coups in the Sahel region presents Iran with opportunities to advance its anti-Western agenda. As local populations grow weary of French and other Western neo-colonialism, Iran can capitalize on this shift in regional dynamics. This could potentially lead to a new economic battleground between Iran and Western powers in the Sahel region. Turkey, Iran, and Morocco are competing for a larger economic and military presence in the Sahel, with Turkey selling advanced combat drones and developing a trans-Saharan corridor from the Gulf of Guinea to Algeria. 

Historical Context 

Iran’s engagement in the Sahel region has a historical background that can be traced back to the early 1980s, following the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Before this period, Iran was aligned with the United States and its allies during the Cold War. However, after the revolution, Iran embarked on a mission to spread radical Shi’ite theological teachings in West Africa/Sahel through various means such as cultural, diplomatic, and media initiatives. This endeavour faced opposition from countries and groups in the region that were led by Saudi Arabia and supported its interests.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Iran maintained bilateral diplomatic relations with Sahel countries, which involved frequent visits by Iranian leaders to the region and reciprocal visits by Sahelian leaders to Tehran. This period marked a continuation of Iran’s efforts to establish and strengthen its presence in the Sahel. In the 2000s, Iran’s involvement in the Sahel region intensified, with a particular focus on countering terrorism and extremism. Additionally, Iran sought to promote economic ties in various sectors as part of its engagement strategy.

Moving into the 2010s, Iran’s diplomatic outreach to the Sahel region persisted, characterized by high-level visits and agreements on cooperation in multiple fields. These areas of cooperation included counterterrorism, economic development, and education, reflecting Iran’s multifaceted approach to expanding its influence in the region.

In the 2020s, Iran capitalized on the growing divide between post-coup leaders in the Sahel and Western countries, notably the United States and France. This rift provided an opportunity for Iran to further expand its influence in the region. By leveraging the strained relations between the Sahelian leaders and their Western counterparts, Iran aimed to strengthen its position and extend its reach in the Sahel.

Shi’a Communities in the Sahel Region

The perception of Iran’s influence among local Shi’a communities in the Sahel region varies. While some view Iran as a defender of their interests and a promoter of their religious beliefs, others approach its involvement with caution. Those who support Iran’s presence believe that it helps counterbalance the influence of Sunni extremist groups and Western powers, particularly due to historical ties with Lebanon. Additionally, they appreciate Iran’s efforts to spread Shi’a theological teachings and cultural practices, as it strengthens their religious identity and fosters connections with other Shi’a communities worldwide. 

However, local Shi’a business communities, concerned about potential damage to their economic and political connections with Sunni commercial interests and pro-Western entities, tend to maintain a low profile in political activities supporting Iran. Moreover, the appeal of extremist Sunni groups in the region, such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State, may make some local Shi’a communities less receptive to Iran’s radicalizing influence, as their primary focus is countering the threat posed by these groups. Furthermore, the need to maintain good relations with predominantly Sunni governments, which may be wary of Iranian influence, also contributes to the cautious approach of local Shi’a communities towards Iran. 

Iran’s Soft Power Strategies

Iran’s soft power strategies in the Sahel region encompass a diverse range of approaches, including educational, cultural, and charitable initiatives. These multifaceted efforts are carefully crafted to advance the ideological and political objectives of the Islamic Republic, bolster its international standing, and extend its influence within the region.

One significant aspect of Iran’s soft power strategy involves the expansion of its renowned Islamic Azad University beyond its national borders, with a particular focus on the Sahel region. This strategic move serves as a crucial component in Iran’s sophisticated approach to promoting its ideological and political goals. In line with this strategy, Iran has put forth proposals to establish branches of the Islamic Azad University in prominent cities of Syria and Iraq, including Damascus, Karbala, Najaf, Baghdad, Basra, and Erbil. By doing so, Iran aims to solidify its presence and influence in these key locations, furthering its objectives in the region.

Another key element of Iran’s soft power strategies is the promotion of Shi’ite Islam, especially in areas with significant Shi’a populations. This entails providing support to local Shi’a communities and disseminating Shi’ite theological teachings. By actively engaging in these endeavours, Iran seeks to strengthen its ties with the Sahel countries and bolster its influence among the local populace.

Moreover, Cultural exchange programs play a vital role in Iran’s efforts to foster connections with Sahel countries. Through educational and cultural initiatives, Iran endeavours to deepen its relationships with local communities, thereby enhancing its influence in the region. These programs serve as a platform for mutual understanding and collaboration, facilitating the spread of Iran’s cultural and ideological values.

Furthermore, Iran’s charitable organizations, such as the Red Crescent Society, actively operate in the Sahel region, providing essential humanitarian aid and disaster relief. These philanthropic endeavours not only contribute to the well-being of the local population but also serve to cultivate goodwill and enhance Iran’s reputation as a benevolent actor in the international arena.

Security Implications of Iran’s Presence in the Sahel Region

Iran is taking advantage of the growing divide between post-coup leaders in the Sahel and Western nations such as the United States and France. Iran’s goal is to step in where French troops have left and aid local armed forces in defeating Sunni Muslim extremist organizations. This strategy enables Iran to push forward its anti-Western agenda and contest Western authority in the area.

Suspicions have arisen regarding Iran’s collaboration with Russia to supplant Western influence in the Sahel by offering financial backing, security collaboration, and military training. The presence of Iranian-supported factions like Hezbollah in the region raises worries about potential proxy conflicts and further unrest. 

The Sahel region boasts abundant natural resources like gold, uranium, lithium, and other minerals. Iran is looking to exploit these resources to circumvent severe sanctions and strengthen its economy, potentially sparking economic rivalry with the West. 

Iran’s objective is to propagate its Shi’ite beliefs in the predominantly Sunni Sahel region, backing local Shi’a communities and disseminating its religious doctrines. This move could escalate sectarian tensions and fuel radicalization, especially if it clashes with the widespread appeal of Sunni extremist groups in the area. Iran’s engagement in the Sahel could create openings for terrorist and extremist factions to establish a presence in the region, exacerbating the already delicate security situation. 

In conclusion, Iran is expected to further strengthen its presence in the Sahel region by deepening economic partnerships, particularly in the areas of natural resource exploitation and infrastructure development. Additionally, Iran will persist in offering military assistance and training to Sahel nations, bolstering their defence capabilities and countering Western influence. 

[Image credit: Peter Fitzgerald, amendments by LtPowers, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

Zubair Mumtaz is a Conflict / Security Analyst and an M.Phil. Scholar in Peace & Conflict Studies at National Defence University. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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