Foreign and Defense Policy

Outreach in West Africa Exposes Iran’s Foreign Policy Aims

Yesterday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that he would travel to New York City for the UN General Assembly meeting in September. As part of the trip, Ahmadinejad renewed his challenge to President Obama for a public debate on “who has a better solution for managing the world.” On Saturday, Iran also offered a $40 million line of credit to Zimbabwe. These and other recent examples of Iranian outreach show that despite UN sanctions and other recent measures by the U.S., Australian, European, and Canadian authorities, Iran does not feel isolated—and in fact exudes confidence—on the world stage.

Tehran still finds friends in the developing world. Whether or not those friendships can salve the wounds sanctions will leave upon Iran or prevent Iran from further UN censure is a matter of debate. However, more important than the actual amount of aid is the Iranian regime’s worldview these friendships reinforce. The very fact that countries continue to take some action in support of Iran and continue to offer friendly rhetoric provides Tehran with assurance that its foreign and nuclear policies should not be altered because some countries still view it as a leader. The recent growth in Iranian exports to West Africa (the result of a long line of diplomatic actions, such as yesterday’s meeting between officials from Burkina Faso and the Iranian first vice president) provides backing for the Iranian leadership’s beliefs:

szrom-8310In a new Critical Threats Project report, I undertake a case study of the cultural, diplomatic, economic, and militaristic methods by which Iran builds support around the world. The report analyzes Iran’s outreach to West Africa, which goes far beyond the July trips Ahmadinejad took to Mali and Nigeria. It finds that Iran still has significant allies in the region and describes the priorities Iran values in its foreign policy: raw material supply, supportive statements, votes at the UN, and potential staging areas for security cooperation.

Iranian outreach to West Africa should alert American policy makers to the need to pay attention to a region often ignored by Washington. America must fully engage in the new diplomatic battleground that is West Africa: unlike allies in other regions, Iran has not yet succeeded in fully securing its friendships in the region. A strong American response to Iranian aid will be necessary, however, to deter Iranian success in its search for support in West Africa and around the world.

Please find the full report here.

Charlie Szrom is a senior analyst and program manager for the Critical Threats Project.

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