July 18, 2023

IntelBrief: Iran Looks to East Africa for More Friends

AP Photo/Hajarah Nalwadda

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi’s July visit to three East African countries aimed to blunt Iran’s growing economic and political isolation from Europe and the effects of U.S.-led economic sanctions.
  • The visited countries – Kenya, Uganda, and Zimbabwe – have generally sought to avoid involvement in major geopolitical schisms such as the war in Ukraine, where Iran is aligned with Russia.
  • Raisi sought to bond with his hosts by stressing shared views on social issues, including those on which some East African leaders are sharply at odds with the West.
  • Iranian leaders also sought to expand trade relations with East Africa and potentially circumvent U.S.-led sanctions.

In mid-July, Iran's President Ibrahim Raisi visited three countries in East Africa: Kenya, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. Iranian media touted the trip as launching a "new beginning" in relations with Africa; it was the first by an Iranian president since the 2013 visit by then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The visit should be viewed in the context of Iran’s growing diplomatic isolation and escalating economic pressure at the hands of the United States and its allies in Europe, particularly over its material support for Russia’s war against Ukraine. In late June, Iran suffered a major setback when the European Union (EU) announced it would retain its sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile programs, which had been set to expire in October 2023 in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which accompanied the 2015 multilateral Iran nuclear deal. The EU decision was based on: Russia's use of Iranian drones against Ukraine; the possibility that Iran might transfer ballistic missiles to Russia; and Iran’s nuclear escalations, which would have violated the terms of the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement had it not been scrapped by the United States in 2018, including enriching uranium to levels approaching the 90% purity required to qualify as “weapons grade.”

Although Iranian officials characterized the visit to East Africa as primarily to boost trade and commercial ties, Raisi indicated that his objectives were to build new alliances with which to exert leverage against the growing economic and diplomatic pressure on Iran from the United States and Europe. Kenya and Uganda are U.S. counterterrorism partners against Al-Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates. However, members and institutions of all three governments – Zimbabwe in particular – have been targeted by U.S. sanctions for alleged human rights abuses, corruption, and election-related violence. While Kenya has not been subject to such sanctioning in some time, Ugandan officials were recently sanctioned over the country’s anti-homosexuality legislation. Resentment over U.S. sanctions resonates strongly in Iran, as well as in the countries visited by Raisi.

On the Russian war against Ukraine, in which Iran is materially supporting Russia’s war effort, Zimbabwe and Uganda abstained from the key UN General Assembly vote in March 2022 to condemn the Russian invasion. Kenyan President William Ruto, on the other hand, has sided with NATO leaders by asserting that internationally recognized boundaries must be respected. Yet Ruto, who warmly received Raisi upon arrival, recently characterized "tensions between North and South” as similar to the deteriorating relations between the West and China. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said in late 2021 that Western companies should “stop giving us lessons,” a reference to what he claims is Western economic pressure on his government not to expand its economic ties to China. It is clear from this trip that Tehran perceives East Africa as fertile ground for much of the regime’s messaging.

Yet Raisi’s efforts in East Africa might backfire by further alienating Tehran from Western leaders. During his stop in Uganda, Raisi painted Kampala as aligned with Tehran’s views on social issues, calling Western nations’ support for homosexuality one of the “dirtiest” episodes of human history. He supported Uganda’s recently-passed legislation prescribing the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality” – legislation that attracted widespread Western condemnation. After meeting with Museveni, Raisi stated: “I believe that this issue, and these strong attacks by the West against the establishment of families and against the culture of the nations, is another area of cooperation for Iran and Uganda.”

Beyond building new partnerships, Iranian leaders and their East African counterparts also sought practical outcomes from the visit. First and foremost, as was evident in Raisi’s June trip to three Latin American countries with whom the United States has strained or hostile relations (Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua), Raisi and the Iranian businessmen in his delegation sought to forge economic ties that would help Tehran undermine the effects of Western sanctions. In advance of the travel, Iran's foreign ministry publicly forecast that trade with all African countries will increase to more than $2 billion in 2023, although Iranian officials did not provide comparative data for the prior year. Raisi has specifically mentioned Africa’s mineral resources and Iran’s petrochemical experience as potential bases for expanded economic cooperation.

The visit, coupled with prior efforts, yielded some modest, if vague, trade and economic agreements with East African countries. Kenya, which is East Africa’s economic hub, represented the centerpiece of Raisi’s excursion. According to Kenyan President Ruto, Iran intends to set up a manufacturing plant for Iranian vehicles in Kenya’s port city of Mombasa. During the Raisi visit, Iranian and Kenyan ministers signed five memoranda of understanding related to information technology, fisheries, livestock products, and investment promotion. Ruto stated that he also sought Raisi’s commitment to facilitate the export of more Kenyan tea, meat, and other agricultural products to Iran and via Iran to Central Asian countries.

Iran and Uganda have, over the past decade, discussed various forms of energy cooperation, including the development of Uganda’s nuclear program. Uganda is trying to set up a nuclear power plant that authorities say will generate electricity by 2031. As an outcome of the Raisi visit, President Museveni asserted that Uganda would engage Iran for support to develop its energy sector, especially its oil and nuclear programs, through technology transfer or project financing. Raisi might have also obtained some help from Uganda to evade U.S.-led sanctions: in 2022, Museveni proposed that the two countries engage in barter trade to evade U.S. sanctions on Iran.

Setting the groundwork for the Zimbabwe leg of the trip, in early 2023, a Zimbabwean ministerial delegation visited Tehran to deepen cooperation in areas including energy trade. The two countries signed 12 agreements, including establishing a tractor manufacturing plant in Zimbabwe with an Iranian company and a local partner. Other agreements expand cooperation in energy, agriculture, pharmaceuticals, and telecommunications, as well as research, science, and technology projects. Still, many of the agreements and pledges reached during Raisi’s East Africa trip are vague and subject to further negotiation, and it is not clear whether, or how extensively, any agreements reached will be implemented.