Since Iran’s 1979 revolution, Tehran has pursued geopolitical aspirations in many parts of the “Global South” and wider Islamic world in order to undermine efforts aimed at isolating the country. The Islamic Republic’s decades-old foreign policy in the Horn of Africa has been part of Iran’s quest to secure more strategic depth through its cultivation of partnerships with various state and non-state actors.
Iran’s controversial hand in the Horn of Africa is often not well understood and, frequently for political purposes, misrepresented. Although there are major limitations to Iran’s presence in this part of Africa, the Iranians have been able to use the region for growing networks that provide alternative corridors for the delivery of military, financial, and material assistance to Tehran’s allies, proxies, and partners throughout the Arab region.
For example, since 2015, Eritrea has provided Iran with a launchpad to arm Houthi insurgents in nearby Yemen. Perceiving Iran to be a highly destabilizing actor in the Horn of Africa and, by extension, the Middle East and other parts of Africa, officials in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have called for countering the Islamic Republic’s influence in the volatile region.
Iran’s Connections in the Horn of Africa
Since 1979, a mix of ideological and tactical factors have driven Tehran’s Horn of Africa foreign policy. By virtue of the Islamic Republic’s Islamist orientation, Iran’s revolutionary regime had an ideological affinity with various Islamist movements in Africa and other regions too. By the same token, some Islamist movements in the region have taken inspiration from the Islamic Republic. Tehran grew more serious about the Horn of Africa in the 1990s against the backdrop of the Iran-Iraq war ending and the Soviet Union’s imploding in 1988 and 1991, respectively.
After Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency began in 2005, Iran’s attention to Africa at large (including the Horn) peaked.
After Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency began in 2005, Iran’s attention to Africa at large (including the Horn) peaked. As Joseph Hammond wrote, Ahmadinejad was the “first leader of the Islamic Republic to look seriously at Africa.” Tehran’s outreach to the Horn of Africa was largely geared toward advancing various objectives, both domestically and abroad. Convincing “average Iranians” that the Islamic Republic is a leader within the wider Islamic world has been important to the regime which saw the Horn of Africa, where most countries are Muslim majority, as a place for Tehran to assert influence.
In terms of Iran’s foreign policy agenda, Tehran’s outreach to the Horn of Africa put pressure on rival powers in the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia to devote more of their resources toward countering the perceived Iranian threat in this impoverished part of Africa.
Iranian support for Somalia’s Union of the Islamic Courts (UIC) was an example of ideology driving Tehran’s engagement with the Horn of Africa. This group emerged amid the anarchy caused by the failure of the Somali state in 1990. The UIC fought against the transitional government and local warlords and it even captured Mogadishu before being defeated by the Ethiopian military. As denounced by a UN panel of experts in 2006, Iran violated the arms embargo by providing weapons to the group. Such support created a deep rift between Tehran and Mogadishu that the former tried to mend only in 2012 through Iran’s humanitarian assistance and opening of religious schools in the impoverished and war-torn African country.
Eritrea was a case of tactical cooperation. Eritrea has been ruled by a secular regime since independence and hence opposed Iran’s Islamization policy in the region. It even enjoyed friendly relations with Israel until then. Yet international isolation pushed the African country close to Tehran.
The rapprochement began in 2006, when the US cut its ties with Asmara over its longstanding war against Ethiopia and its support for terrorist organizations in Somalia, like al-Shabaab. These two reasons eventually led to the adoption of UN sanctions in 2009. President Isaias Afwerki and Ahmadinejad paid reciprocal visits and signed four agreements boosting political relations, trade, and Iranian investments in the Eritrean economy in 2008. Eritrea also allowed Iranian warships to dock in the ports of Massawa and Assab, strategically located close to the Bab El-Mandab Strait.
The reignition of tensions in Iranian-Saudi relations following the Arab Spring revolts of 2011 had implications not only for the Middle East but also the Horn of Africa. In this part of the African continent, the Saudis have been attempting to counter Tehran’s influence.
Eritrea was a case in point. Saudi Arabia perceived the port of Assab as an Iranian hub to bolster the Houthis’ war capabilities. Along with the UAE, Riyadh strengthened its relations with President Afwerki by offering investments in public infrastructures and a financial aid package in 2016. The result of this enhanced cooperation was the expulsion of the Iranian navy from Assab and its replacement with Saudi and Emirati forces.
Saudi Arabia perceived the port of Assab as an Iranian hub to bolster the Houthis’ war capabilities.
Other Horn countries also distanced themselves from Iran. Riyadh’s pressure led to Djibouti and Somalia cutting their diplomatic relations with Tehran in early 2016. Somalia even joined the Saudi-led, anti-Houthi coalition by opening its airspace to the coalition’s air forces. Ethiopia had never developed close links to Iran, so it did not take any specific stance against it. Somaliland moved closer to the UAE in exchange for investments in Berbera.
Now, Saudi Arabia appears to be consolidating its clout in the Horn through the Council of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden–comprised of Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen. This new Saudi-led organization gathers all Horn and Red Sea states, except Ethiopia, and aims at fighting external threats in the region, including Iran, as well as Turkey and Qatar.
Past and Future Outlook
For numerous reasons, Iran has been significantly less successful than GCC states and Turkey in terms of successfully engaging governments and societies in the Horn of Africa.
Religion, sectarianism, and ideology are all relevant. Maysam Behravesh, an Iran expert at Gulf State Analytics, explained in a July 20 interview with the authors that “when it comes to the Horn of Africa . . . there isn’t much fertile ideological ground for [Iranian] maneuvering and influence building, unlike in, say, Nigeria in West Africa, where there is a sizable Shia population.”
“When it comes to the Horn of Africa . . . there isn’t much fertile ideological ground for [Iranian] maneuvering and influence building.”
Amid reports that Tehran is sponsoring al-Shabab, Behravesh urges skepticism about such claims. “We need reliable evidence to be able to safely argue that under Esmail Qaani, the Quds Force has gone so far as to assist a group like al-Shabab in order to secure its geopolitical interests, a group that is, quite ironically, more compatible with Saudi Arabia and its Wahhabist ideology,” he added.
A lack of financial resources is another reason why Iran has been unable to compete with deep-pocketed GCC member-states in the Horn of Africa. Given how these impoverished countries are ruled by highly transactional and cash-strapped governments, the wealthy Arab Gulf states’ financial clout has given them a major advantage over Iran when it comes to strengthening geopolitical and economic leverage in this region. Under sanctions, Iran has prioritized its foreign policy endeavors in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria, which are of far greater strategic importance to Tehran than the Horn of Africa.
Although the Islamic Republic’s foes continue depicting Iran as a threat to the Horn of Africa’s stability, its current presence and influence in the region is minimal and often highly overstated in certain capitals. “There is absolutely an exaggeration of Iran’s influence in the Horn of Africa,” said Dr. Thomas Juneau, an Assistant Professor at the University of Ottawa, in an interview.
“There is a tendency in some circles—in the Gulf, in the US, in Israel, and sometimes elsewhere—to exaggerate Iran’s influence more generally [such as] in Yemen, for example. Many inflate the intensity of Tehran’s investment and the influence that this buys it on the ground. In that sense, inflation of Iran’s presence in Africa, in the Horn and elsewhere on the continent, mostly mirrors a broader pattern,” Juneau added.
As African countries along the Red Sea are located close to Yemen, the IRGC has every reason to continue capitalizing on this geography.
Nonetheless, it would be misguided to entirely disregard Iran’s role in this region. As African countries along the Red Sea are located close to Yemen, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has every reason to continue capitalizing on this geography and using the Horn of Africa as another conduit to undermine the Americans, Emiratis, and Saudis as Behravesh pointed out.
Looking ahead, Juneau argues that Tehran will aim to advance its agenda in the Horn of Africa on “purely pragmatic grounds” while understanding how its clout in the region is limited. Most likely, Iranian officials will work to maintain their networks and keep channels of communication open with diverse players in the Horn of Africa while making strategic investments to guarantee Tehran a degree of limited influence.
Realistically, however, Turkey and the GCC states with the most ambitious foreign policies should not face major competition from Iran in this part of Africa. Yet the perceived Iranian threat to stability in the Horn of Africa will remain an issue that Abu Dhabi and Riyadh will hype to justify their own interventionism in the volatile region.
Authors’ Note: Both Mr. Maysam Behravesh and Dr. Thomas Juneau were interviewed by the authors on July 20, 2020.
Co-author: Corrado Čok is an intern at Gulf State Analytics (@GulfStateAnalyt), a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy.