As I wrote many months ago, ‘[o]ver the past months Turkey has tried to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians, between Iran and the rest of the world, between Syria and Israel, and following the outbreak of the Arab Awakening, the state founded by Mustafa Kemal was quick to present itself as a future role-model for Arab nation states yearning for freedom and democracy . . . Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and Syria have all continued their course without taking any account of the Turkish road to prosperity, so that the Turkish humanitarian intervention in the Horn of Africa might just prove to do the trick and turn Turkey into an international player of some importance’. And now the pan-Arab, international broadcaster Al Jazeera picks up on Turkey’s new pseudo-Ottoman overtures in Africa: ‘Turkey has been showing unparalleled interest in Somalia, starting with a visit from Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, in August last year. Al Jazeera‘s Nazanine Moshiri takes a look’.
China’s presence in Africa is well known, but as Miss Moshiri points out, Iran has also displayed an interest in the Black Continent, as illustrated by the former Pentagon official and current resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute Michael Rubin: ‘On January 29, 2008, [Iran’s Foreign Minister] Mottaki declared that this year would mark a “milestone in Iran-Africa ties.” Three days later, while attending the Africa Union summit in Addis Ababa, Mottaki announced that Iran would soon host a summit of African foreign ministers in Tehran. The traditional pattern in which Iranian actions fail to live up to diplomatic rhetoric also appears to be changing in Africa, with Tehran developing strong partnerships with a number of states. The Islamic Republic has forged particularly strong ties with Senegal, once a Cold War ally of the United States but now quietly turning into West Africa’s Venezuela. President Abdoulaye Wade has traveled twice to Tehran to meet with Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, first in 2006 and again in 2008. During his most recent visit, he provided a backdrop for Khamenei to declare that developing unity between Islamic countries like Senegal and Iran can weaken “the great powers” like the United States. It would be a mistake to dismiss this as a rhetorical flourish: on January 27, 2008, a week after Senegalese foreign minister Cheikh Tidiane Gadio announced that he, too, would visit Tehran, Minister of Armed Forces Becaye Diop met with his Iranian counterpart to discuss expanding bilateral defense ties between the two states.Senior Iranian officials have returned the visits. On July 22, 2007, judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi and government spokesman Gholam-Hossein Elham –among the closest confidantes of Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, respectively– departed for Dakar, where they met Wade and Senegalese prime minister Cheikh Hadjibou Soumaré. Shahroudi declared, “We believe it is our duty to expand ties with Islamic countries and use the capabilities and potentials [sic] of Muslim states to help the growth and spread of Islam.” On March 12, 2008, Ahmadinejad left for a visit to the West African state. While the Iranian leadership might be most interested in expanding a Muslim bloc –especially one that might supplant the influence of Sunni Arab states– the Senegalese leadership seems most interested in immediate economic benefits. “Energy, Oil Prospecting, Industry: Senegal Benefits from Iranian Solutions,” a headline in the official government newspaper declared after Wade’s first visit to Tehran. After the reciprocal Iranian visit, Wade announced that Iran would build an oil refinery, a chemical plant, and an $80 million car assembly plant in the West African nation. Within weeks, Samuel Sarr, Senegal’s energy minister, visited Tehran and returned with a pledge that Iran would supply Senegal with oil for a year and purchase a 34 percent stake in Senegal’s oil refinery. Such aid probably came with strings attached. On November 25, 2007, during the third meeting of the Iran-Senegal joint economic commission, Wade endorsed Iran’s nuclear program. Senegal is not alone among those countries Tehran is cultivating. While Iranian officials trumpet Islam during meetings with Muslim officials, the Islamic Republic is willing to embrace any African state –Muslim or not– that finds itself estranged from the West in general and the United States in particular. Here, Sudan and Zimbabwe especially have been beneficiaries. Both European governments and Washington have sought to isolate Sudan for what many international human rights groups deem genocide in Darfur. As the international community sought to tighten diplomatic sanctions on Khartoum, Ahmadinejad moved to embrace Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir. Ahmadinejad was forthright: Iranian-Sudanese ties should be built around the understanding that both governments would defend each other in international settings. [In March 2008] Iran’s defense minister visited Khartoum and called the African state “the cornerstone” of the Islamic Republic’s Africa policies. Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s longtime president, has been as poisonous for his country as Bashir has been for Sudan. Mugabe’s government demonizes racial and ethnic minorities, and his economic policies have forced the breadbasket of southern Africa to face famine. But as the international community has isolated Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe, Tehran has reached out to fill the gap. Iranian politicians may speak of their commitment to social justice, but their crass indifference to social issues and public health and well-being are on display as they work to transform Africa’s most brutal dictatorship into a pillar of Iranian influence in Africa. Mottaki initiated outreach to Zimbabwe on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in 2006. The two countries pledged uniformity of policy. At a Tehran press conference in November of that year, Mugabe said, “Iran and Zimbabwe think alike and have been described [as belonging to] the ‘Axis of Evil.’ . . . Those countries that think alike should come together.” In subsequent days, the two countries signed deals to boost energy cooperation, restart Zimbabwe’s defunct oil refinery, and underwrite agricultural policies that have left the southern African nation on the brink of famine. The Iranian ambassador in Harare pledged to help Mugabe repel sanctions’. In other words, Turkey seems to have its work cut out . . .