Middle Eastern Interventions in Africa: Tehran’s Extensive Soft Power

The Regime is radically Reshaping African Islam and Politics

By HASSAN DAI

Source: Middle East Quarterly

FALL 2018, VOLUME 25: NUMBER 4

 

Since its establishment in 1979, the Islamic Republic of Iran has made enormous efforts to export its revolution around the world. Iranian diplomats, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and subordinate organs have spread Shiite doctrine and engaged in direct subversion, terrorism, and organized crime such as drug smuggling.

Iran-sponsored al-Quds Day rally in Yola, Nigeria, 2017. Iran’s Al-Mustafa International University is responsible for exporting Tehran’s revolutionary ideology. The university’s goal is to spread anti-American ideology and to “liberate Palestine” and “eradicate Israel.”

Yet while Tehran’s exertions in the Middle East, Central Asia, and even Latin America have received widespread international exposure, Iranian efforts in Africa have attracted scant attention though the Islamist regime has invested substantial resources to expand its soft power and influence across the continent. So much so that it is arguable that Tehran is reshaping African Islam and the continent’s politics.

Winning Hearts and Minds

While Iran’s primary target for the export of its revolution has been the Middle East, Africa has also been seen as a strategically important region for several reasons. Nearly 45 percent of the continent’s 1.2 billion persons are Muslim, [1] and Tehran recognizes that the lack of influence there presents a serious handicap to its quest to dominate the Islamic world. Gaining popular support within the Muslim communities could also influence the policies of African governments toward Iran. Furthermore, Africa’s Shiite communities have been a source of financial support for Tehran’s Hezbollah proxy in Lebanon.[2] At the same time, a strong presence on the continent provides Iran with a network and routes for logistical support to radical groups in the Middle East.

To win the hearts and minds of African Muslims, the Iranian regime and its institutions organize conferences, conduct religious and political events, work with local partners, and run more than one hundred Islamic centers, schools, seminaries, and mosques in more than thirty African countries with thousands of students, clerics and missionaries. In addition, Tehran has offered financial and economic incentives to African governments and used two of its charities, the Iranian Red Crescent and the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee, to provide a wide range of free social and health services in several African countries.

The two main organizations spearheading this quest for soft power are the Islamic Culture and Relations Organization, which operates through cultural attachés at Iranian embassies, and the Al-Mustafa International University,[3] which trains foreign clerics and missionaries around the world.

These and other organizations disseminate Tehran’s fundamentalist ideology and generate grassroots support for its foreign policy, its position in the Islamic world, and its quest to dominate the Middle East. They also provide the regime with a recruiting pool for the IRGC’s Quds Force and other Iranian institutions responsible for terrorism or military activities abroad.[4]

Indeed, over the last several years, various African governments have arrested Iranian terrorist suspects, dismantled pro-Tehran networks, and seized Iranian weapons shipments to radical groups in the Middle East. In February 2018, for instance, two Lebanese citizens were arrested in South Africa and charged with illegally buying digital components used in drones and sending them to Hezbollah.[5] Similarly, in late 2017, American media reported the details of “project Cassandra” launched by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to combat Hezbollah’s billion-dollar narcotic and money laundering enterprise across the globe. According to the report, DEA agents discovered how Hezbollah operatives used their network in West African countries to launder drug money.[6] Indeed, in 2013, the U.S. Treasury had sanctioned the Hezbollah finance network in West Africa.[7]

Participants attend the “Women in Islam” conference organized by the Iranian cultural attaché in Uganda. The cultural attachés in Iranian embassies provide a venue for Iran’s Islamic Culture and Relations Organization to pursue cultural and religious activities in African countries.

Tehran has also been implicated in attempted attacks on Israeli and other targets in the continent. In 2016, for example, two Iranians were charged in a Kenyan court with collecting information to facilitate a terrorist attack after they were caught collecting video footage of the Israeli embassy.[8] In 2012 and 2015, terrorist suspects tied to Iran were arrested in Kenya while plotting to attack Israeli and Western targets.[9] In June 2013, a Hezbollah armory was uncovered in the northern Nigerian city of Kano.[10] And in 2010, the Nigerian authorities seized a huge Iranian weapons shipment containing crates of rocket launchers and heavy mortars allegedly destined for Hamas.[11]

Iran has also been pursuing political goals in Africa such as encouraging governments to vote with them in the U.N. Security Council and other international bodies.[12] Iran has also tried to use friendly African governments to circumvent economic sanctions, acquire military and nuclear technology, and gain access to uranium resources.[13]

The Islamic Culture and Relations Organization

One of Tehran’s foremost groups in Africa is the Islamic Culture and Relations Organization (ICRO), which coordinates the activities of various Iranian organizations responsible for religious and cultural activities abroad. These activities are carried out either under ICRO’s own name or by subordinate organizations that operate a large number of mosques and Islamic centers across Africa and collaborate with local Islamic centers. In both cases, the cultural attachés in the Iranian embassies play an important role in facilitating and/or organizing these activities in each country and coordinating with local partners. [14]

The main groups that are operating under the ICRO umbrella include:

* The Ahl al-Bait World Assembly, which promotes Shiism and oversees relations with Shiites around the world.

* The World Forum for Proximity of Islamic Schools of Thought, which is responsible for relations with non-Shiite Muslims around the world.

* The Islamic Development Organization (IDO), which publishes religious and propaganda materials and sends religious missionaries to foreign countries.

* The Qom Seminary Office of Islamic Propaganda, which is similarly involved in sending missionaries and clerics abroad.

* The Foreign Affairs Department of the Culture and Islamic Guidance Ministry that operates cultural attachés in Iranian embassies abroad.[15] These offices provide an essential venue for the ICRO to pursue its cultural and religious activities in African countries. There are currently sixteen cultural attachés in Iranian embassies in Africa.

* The Center for Interreligious Dialogue and Civilization (CID), which is involved in philosophical, legal, social, political and cultural dialogue with regional and international religious figures and institutions as well as with religious minorities inside and outside Iran.

ICRO’s activities in Africa include sending religious missionaries to promote the Iranian regime’s “pure Islam” and the regime’s political goals; cooperating with local universities and other institutions; and orchestrating uniquely Iranian events or giving Islamic events an Iranian cast, most notably:

* The Anniversary of the Islamic Revolution: Events are organized each February by the Iranian cultural attachés.[16]

* The anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini’s death: Events are organized each June by the Iranian cultural attachés and other ICRO affiliated organizations.[17]

Iran’s Al-Mustafa University has branches in 17 sub-Saharan African countries. Many graduates are hired by the university as teaching staff or missionaries and sent to countries around the world to spread the Iranian regime’s radical Islam.

* Islamic religious events: ICRO regularly holds religious ceremonies across Africa. The most common event is the prophet Muhammad’s birthday, which gives Tehran the opportunity to reach out to African non-Shiite Muslims.[18] Targeting Shiite populations, ICRO and other Iranian affiliated organizations hold mourning processions for the Ashura, marking the death anniversary of Imam Hussein, grandson of the prophet Muhammad and the third Shiite Imam. There is also the Arbaeen procession to commemorate the end of the 40-day mourning period for Hussein’s killing.

* Islamic unity events: Since the vast majority of African Muslims are Sunnis, ICRO and other Iranian-affiliated organizations stage various “interfaith” and “Muslim unity” conferences and events across Africa. These are designed to create a friendly relationship with Sunni communities and present Iran as the defender of the Islamic umma (world community).[19]

Al-Mustafa University Exported to Africa

Founded in 2007, Al-Mustafa International University is Iran’s foremost religious institution. With Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as its highest authority, the university is responsible for exporting Tehran’s revolutionary ideology with one hundred branches across the Islamic world, training foreign clerics, scholars and missionaries.

Al-Mustafa is a formidable tool for recruiting candidates for the regime’s terrorist and military activities abroad. Alireza Tavassoli (second from left), killed in 2014, was an Al-Mustafa cleric and commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Afghan force in Syria.

Al-Mustafa has more than 40,000 students, half of whom study at campuses across Iran. There are nearly 10,000 female students. Since 2007, more than 45,000 clerics and Islamic scholars have graduated from Al-Mustafa, and a good portion of them have been hired by the university as teaching staff or missionaries and sent to different countries around the globe. [20]

Al-Mustafa has seventeen main branches in sub-Saharan Africa and runs some one hundred schools, mosques, and seminaries in thirty African countries. In a July 2015 interview, the university president emphasized the importance of the continent as “strategic depth” for “pure Islam,” namely the version of Islam promoted by the Iranian regime. In his account:

“5,000 African students are studying at the university, and there have also been 5,000 African graduates from Al-Mustafa. We have tens of schools and seminaries in Africa, and we are somehow present in thirty different countries in the continent.” [21]

Of these 5,000 African students, nearly 2,000 study in Iran, some 1,200 of whom learn at the Mashhad campus.[22] According to the Iranian press, African students studying in Iran are sent as missionaries to their native countries several times each year.[23]

Al-Mustafa is also a formidable tool for recruiting candidates for the regime’s terrorist and military activities abroad, including direct participation in Iran’s imperial wars. Since the start of the civil war in Syria and Tehran’s military intervention to save the Bashar Assad regime, there have been numerous reports in the Iranian media about funerals for Al-Mustafa students killed in Syria.[24] In March 2016, one of the university’s directors declared that “some of the foreign fighters deployed by Iran and sent to Syria were Al-Mustafa’s students and clerics.”[25] Alireza Tavassoli, commander of the IRGC’s Afghan force in Syria (Fatemiyon), killed in 2014, was an Al-Mustafa cleric.[26] According to Mashregh, an IRGC-affiliated website, the founding members of Zeynabiyoun (the IRGC’s Pakistani contingent in Syria) were Pakistani students in Qom seminaries.[27]

Al-Mustafa network’s explicit goal is also to spread the Iranian regime’s anti-American ideology and promote its self-proclaimed mandate to “liberate Palestine” and “eradicate Israel.” In this context, Al-Mustafa and ICRO work together to organize al-Quds rallies in African countries such as Burkina Faso, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Madagascar, Zimbabwe, Kenya, and Uganda.[28]

Al-Mustafa’s most important African centers are located in Nigeria, a country with several million Shiites, where the university operates five schools and seminaries with nearly one thousand students from Nigeria and neighboring states.[29]

In December 2015, during a bloody government crackdown, the Nigerian army attacked the centers of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria—a pro-Tehran Shiite organization with thousands of members—killed dozens of activists, and arrested its leader Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky.[30] Since the crackdown, Al-Mustafa’s Nigeria operations have been under government scrutiny.

To compensate for its weakening position in Nigeria, the Iranian government is dedicating more resources to strengthen Al-Mustafa’s presence in other West African countries, notably Ghana, where it runs the Islamic University College Ghana (IUCG) with nearly one thousand students. Al-Mustafa also has a Shiite seminary in Accra with 120 clerics from Ghana and neighboring countries.[31] In 2015, Al-Mustafa launched the Fatima religious schools for girls in Accra where the Ahl al-Bait Mosque hosts some of its public events (as well as those organized by ICRO).[32]

Iranian diplomatic outreach to Ghana is also increasing. In February 2016, the president of Ghana was warmly welcomed in Iran and met with Khamenei, signed two economic memoranda of understanding with the Iranian government promising more economic support to Ghana, and met with Al-Mustafa’s vice president to discuss the university’s activities.[33]

Al-Mustafa has its main branch in Burkina Faso’s capital city of Ouagadougou. Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi visited there in 2012. Additionally, Al-Mustafa runs the al-Ghadir center with nearly one hundred students, mostly women. Al-Mustafa also has a working partnership with Imam Ali Seminary and Ahl al-Bait Center, both established by Al-Mustafa graduates.[34]

While Al-Mustafa’s presence in East African countries is generally weak, the university has a noticeable presence in Tanzania, which operates as a center for neighboring countries. This includes a small branch in the capital city of Dar Es-Salaam with thirty students and a seminary called Imam Sadigh with 150 students.[35]

Iran considers the Al-Mustafa network a formidable tool to export its revolution. In his speech to students and staff, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei explained Tehran’s mandate to spread “pure Islamic thoughts” and liberate the Islamic nation from “the arrogant powers’ hand of oppression and aggression,”[36] and emphasized the role that Al-Mustafa plays in carrying out this mission. Similarly, the dean of the language and culture department at Al-Mustafa has declared that “our goal is the export of revolution.”[37] While another senior Al-Mustafa official took great pride in the fact that “Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr in in Saudi Arabia, and Sheikh Zakzaky in Nigeria are fruits of Al-Mustafa’s teachings.”[38]

Other Al-Mustafa sites include:

* Cameroon: One small branch in Cameroon and two seminaries, one for men and another for women.[39]

* Congo: A main branch in Kinshasa numbering some 120 students.[40] 

* Guinea: The Ahl al-Bait school with nearly one hundred students.[41]

* Ivory Coast: The Shiite seminary of Ahl al-Bait with 120 students and the Zeynab seminary for women with forty.[42]

* Madagascar: A branch of the university in the capital city of Antananarivo. Other affiliated centers include Imam Sadjad Mosque, the Rasul Akram Mosque and the Islamic Center of Dar al-Quran in the city of Mahajanga.[43] 

* Malawi: A branch in the capital city of Lilongwe.

* Mali: One small branch.

* Niger: A branch in the capital city of Niamey.

* Senegal: A campus in Dakar. * Sierra Leon: The International Institute of Islamic Studies (IIIS) in the capital city of Freetown and the Imam Hossein Seminary in Makeni.[44]

* South Africa: A branch in Johannesburg, which collaborates closely with ICRO’s Islamic center of Ahl al-Bait, Cape Town.[45]

* Uganda: Al-Mustafa’s Islamic College with nearly one hundred students.[46]

Health and Social Services Grow Support

The Iranian Red Crescent (IRCS) provides health and medical services in more than a dozen African countries, including Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania, Congo, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Comoro Islands, Niger, Mali, Sierra Leon, Ivory Coast, Comoro, Uganda, and Somalia.[47] In Kenya, the Iran Medical Clinic began its activities in 1998 and currently has three fully-equipped facilities in Nairobi and Mombasa providing free and low-cost services to more than 30,000 people every year. In addition, the Iranian Red Crescent operates two orphanages in the country and supplies free medicine to other Kenyan clinics.[48]

In Uganda, the newly built Iran-Uganda hospital in the capital city of Kampala was inaugurated in October 2017 by the Iranian foreign minister.[49] In Zimbabwe, the Iranian Red Crescent has one facility in Harare and provides additional services throughout the country such as relief assistance and support to orphanages.[50]

Iran Clinic in Accra, Ghana. Tehran’s social networks supply medical and financial support to impoverished African communities. The goal of this “soft diplomacy” is to build grassroots support for Tehran in the U.N. and other international organizations.

In Ghana, the Iranian Red Crescent operates a clinic in Accra where the Iranian ambassador and the Ghanaian president inaugurated the clinic’s new building in September 2014. Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif visited the fully-equipped facility in July 2016.[51] In the Comoros Islands, Iran has one fully equipped clinic in the capital city of Niamey and two smaller centers in the cities of Zinder and Baleyara that reportedly provide medical services to more than 70,000 patients each year.[52] In Tanzania, IRCS has one clinic in Dar Es-Salaam that began operations in 2012. [53] The Imam Khomeini Relief Committee (IKRC), an Iranian regime charity organization, also has an extensive presence in several African countries and the Middle East. IKRC’s branch in Lebanon is sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury for its support to Hezbollah.[54] In Africa, IKRC provides free social and relief services such as pensions, loans, housing, and food to the poor.

For the past several years, the IKRC has been very active in Somalia where famine and drought have created a widespread crisis. The group has provided relief assistance to the affected areas especially those living in the camps.[55]

According to the Iranian government press, IKRC operates three main relief centers in the Comoro Islands providing financial and living support to poor families across 320 villages.[56] According to IKRC’s own report, it has twenty-two learning centers on the islands providing professional training in sixteen fields to more than a thousand students. They support orphans and the poor and provide them with a wide range of assistance including business loans and housing.

In Sierra Leone, IKRC has several relief units and professional learning centers that provide services and training to thousands of people each year.[57]

All in all, while Tehran’s social networks may supply much needed medical and financial support to impoverished African communities, the impact of this “soft diplomacy” is evident in grassroots support for Iran and, as significantly, in political support for Tehran in the U.N. and other international organizations. Ironically, Iranian leaders barely mask their continuing strategy of seeking African support, most recently to thwart tightening U.S. sanctions.[58]

Conclusion

Tehran’s persistent export of its brand of Shiite Islamism to Africa poses a real threat to peace on the continent, not least since this ideology promotes the narrative that Islam is still at war with the West as the continuation of their millenarian struggle for world domination. In this context, Israel is depicted as a cancerous Western implant at the heart of the Islamic world that must be eradicated. Thousands of African clerics trained in the Iranian-owned seminaries promote this anti-Western, anti-Semitic, and anti-Israel animosity.

Iran has established a strong presence in Africa primarily through financial and commercial support to economically weak African governments or through bribes to corrupt leaders and dictators, all of whom ignore or underestimate the long-term threat posed by the Iranian-promoted militant Islam.

The antidotes to the nefarious Iranian activities are democracy and economic prosperity. The West, especially the United States, cannot afford to ignore the poverty and economic crises in Africa that create the ideal environment for religious incitement and provide Tehran with the opportunity to spread its own version of radical Islam.

Hassan Dai is an investigative journalist and editor for the Iranian American Forum.

Notes

[1] “Four Maps that Explain Islam in Africa,” American Security Project, Washington, D.C., June 30, 2014.

[2] Matthew Levitt, “Hezbollah Finances: Funding the Party of God,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Washington, D.C., Feb. 2005.

[3] Hassan Dai, “Al-Mustafa University, Iran’s global network of Islamic schools,” Iranian-American Forum, Apr. 2016.

[4] “Sub-Saharan Africa: Growing Iranian Activity,” Directorate of Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency, Langley, Va., Jan. 26, 2011; Alex McAnenny, Nicholas Hanlon, ed., “Iran in Africa,” Center for Security Policy, Washington, D.C., 2014; Armin Rosen, “Desperate for Allies and Secret Assets, Iran Penetrates Africa,” The Tower (Washington, D.C.), Aug. 2013.

[5] News24 (Cape Town), Feb. 26, 2018.

[6] Josh Meyer, “The secret backstory of how Obama let Hezbollah off the hook,” Politico Magazine (Arlington, Va.), Dec. 15, 2017.

[7] “Treasury Sanctions Hizballah Operatives in West Africa,” U.S. Dept. of the Treasury, Washington, D.C., June 11, 2013.

[8] Associated Press, Dec. 1, 2016

[9] CNN, Nov. 29, 2015.

[10] BBC, May 30, 2013.

[11] Reuters, Oct. 30, 2010.

[12] Ibid., June 18, 2012.

[13] Jason Warner, “How Africa plays into Iran’s nuclear ambitions,” CNN, Jan. 17, 2012.

[14] “Ashnaei ba sazman,” Islamic Culture and Relations Organization (ICRO).

[15] Cultural attachés in Iranian embassies, ICRO website, July 3, 2018.

[16] ICRO, Iranian embassy, Nigeria, Dec. 2, 2011; Iranian cultural attaché website, Harare, Zimbabwe, Feb. 12, 2015; ICRO, Feb. 14, 2018; Iranian cultural attaché website, Nairobi, Kenya, Feb. 16, 2016.

[17] Iranian cultural attaché website, Dar Es-Salaam, Tanzania, June 8, 2015; “Remembrance of Imam Khomeini,” ICRO, Arrupe College, Harare, Zimbabwe, June 6, 2016; “Imam Khomaini Anniversary in Lagos,” ICRO, Iranian embassy, Nigeria, June 7, 2014.

[18] ABNA News (Tehran), Oct. 24, 2016, Dec. 19, 2016, Dec. 27, 2016.

[19] Ibid., Oct. 2, 2016, Oct. 30, 2016, Nov. 2, 2016, Dec. 10, 2016; “Iranian Cultural Counsellor Speaks at Peace Promotion Gathering,” ICRO, Zimbabwe, June 4, 2016.

[20] Hawzah News (Qom), Apr. 10, 2018.

[21] Alireza Arafi, ibid., July 26, 2015.

[22] Mashregh News (Tehran), July 7, 2015.

[23] Tabnak News Agency (Tehran), Oct. 26, 2014.

[24] See, for example, “Shohadayeiran.com” website, May 20, 2015; Rasa News Agency (Tehran), Dec. 13, 2017.

[25] Ruhollah Tabatabei, ABNA, Mar. 7, 2016.

[26] BBC News in Persian, Apr. 23, 2015.

[27] Mashregh News, July 11, 2016.

[28] See, for example, “Quds Day in Zaria City Nigeria,” YouTube, July 25, 2014; “Commemoration of International Quds Day in Harare,” Zimbabwe, IRCO, July 25, 2014.

[29] Ali Zaroumi, Hawzah News, June 15, 2015.

[30] “Shiite Muslim Sect Alleges Massacres by Nigeria’s Military,” The New York Times, Dec. 15, 2015.

[31] Al-Mustafa website, Jan. 10, 2013.

[32] ABNA, Dec. 6, 2016.

[33] Press TV (Tehran), Feb. 14, 2016; Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA, Tehran), Feb. 14, 2016; Al-Mustafa News website, Feb. 16, 2016

[34] Al-Mustafa website, July 7, 2018; Meybod (Iran) News, Al-Mustafa website, Mar. 31, 2012.

[35] Hawzah News, Mar. 13, 2010.

[36] Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, “Leader’s Speech to Foreign Seminarians in Qom,” Oct. 25, 2010.

[37] Hawzah News, Mar. 26, 2015.

[38] Fars News Agency (Tehran), Jan. 28, 2017.

[39] Al-Mustafa website, Mar. 27, 2012, Mar. 28, 2012.

[40] Hawzah News, June 5, 2015.

[41] Al-Mustafa website, Aug. 6, 2017.

[42] Ibid., Apr. 8, 2014.

[43] ABNA, Dec. 10, 2017.

[44] The International Institute of Islamic Studies; Al-Mustafa website, Nov. 4, 2016, Dec. 11, 2017.

[45] Al-Mustafa International University, South Africa Branch, Johannesburg.

[46] Al-Mustafa Islamic College, Kampala, Uganda.

[47] Dolat.ir.com (Tehran), Aug. 25, 2015.

[48] Iran Medical Clinic, Nairobi, Kenya; Iranian cultural attaché website, Nairobi, Kenya, Oct. 8, 2016.

[49] Mehr News Agency (Tehran), Oct. 26, 2017.

[50] Ibid., Oct. 30, 2012.

[51] “Commissioning of the new Iran clinic in Ghana,” YouTube, Sept. 2014; Iranian Student News Agency (ISNA, Tehran), July 27, 2016.

[52] Iranian Red Crescent, Aug. 10, 2016.

[53] “Iranian Red Crescent clinic Dar Es-Salaam,” Iranian embassy website, Dar Es-Salaam, Tanzania.

[54] “U.S. Treasury Department Targets Iran’s Support for Terrorism. Treasury Announces New Sanctions against Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force Leadership,” Press Center, Washington, D.C., Aug. 3, 2010.

[55] Fars News Agency, Dec. 23, 2011.

[56] Asr-e Iran (Tehran), Sept. 11, 2011.

[57] Sarkhat News (Kabul), Apr. 25, 2012.

[58] Ahmad Majidyar, “Iran Seeks Closer Economic Ties to Africa to Minimize U.S. Sanctions,” Middle East Institute, Washington, D.C., Oct 23, 2017.