KIBII: Iran joins fray in scramble for Africa resources

The last visit by an Iranian leader to Kenya was in February 2009, when Mwai Kibaki hosted Mahmoud Ahmandinejad.

In Summary

• Raisi says Africa is a continent of capacities and opportunities, and Iran's perspective is that it has a talented workforce, great material and deposits

• Iran Foreign Minister says Africa is facing numerous problems such as poverty and deprivation as the result of the rivalry between the East and the West. 

Iran President Ebrahim Raisi and President William Ruto during a joint address at State House, Nairobi, on July 12, 2023.
SCRAMBLE FOR AFRICA: Iran President Ebrahim Raisi and President William Ruto during a joint address at State House, Nairobi, on July 12, 2023.
Image: PCS

 After a false start on Tuesday, the state visit by Iran President Ebrahim Raisi finally happened on Wednesday. 

The ceremony, which seemed hurriedly done not to disrupt Raisi's tour of Uganda and Zimbabwe, ended with the signing of five MoUs in agriculture and livestock;  culture and heritage; ICT, fisheries, housing, urban and metropolitan development. as well as in technical and vocational training. 

In the joint presser, President William Ruto said he had a commitment from President Raisi to facilitate the export of more tea, meat and agricultural products to Iran, and that through Tehran, Kenya will be able to export to Central Asian countries. 

On the same, Raisi said more Iranian firms will establish operations in Kenya, paving their way to accessing the regional markets of the East African Community, Comesa and the African Continental Free Trade Area that has up to 1.4 billion people. 

“The Kenya-Iran relations can always be strengthened for our mutual benefit. Kenya has a lot of capabilities and talents, and exchange of such capabilities can make our two countries greater,” he said through a translator during the media briefing at State House. 

While bilateral cooperation in the aforementioned areas characterised the speeches, for diplomatic and foreign affairs observers, it is what Raisi's visit, the first in Africa since he became President in August 2021, meant for Kenya, the first stop, and Africa in general, amidst the heightened global politics. 

The last visit by an Iranian leader to Kenya was in February 2009, when Mwai Kibaki hosted Mahmoud Ahmandinejad, who also visited Djibouti. A year later, he visited Uganda and later in April 2013, toured Benin, Niger and Ghana.

Since coming to power in September last year, President Ruto has largely looked West in his foreign policy orientation. Therefore, the state visit - the highest level of international visit whose purpose is to confirm the good relationship between concerned states – by Iran appeared to take a different turn.  

Iran faces international sanctions from the US, the European Union and the UN over violation of human rights and treaties under which it promised not to pursue nuclear weapons. 

Only a month ago, President Ruto hosted the long-serving Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and said Nairobi looks to deepen ties with Moscow to increase trade volumes.  

The delay of the visit, which was not satisfactorily explained by Nairobi or Tehran, did little to manage the speculations, raising more questions on what was happening behind the scenes. 

What is in it for the two states? 

Nasongo Muliro, a foreign policy expert and a resident fellow at the Global Centre for Policy and Strategy, says that Kenya has secured its position with the West and can now play pragmatism. 

Pragmatists argue that rather than enshrining specific ends such as power and security for all time, the  commitment should be to select intelligent means and tools to solve certain problems at a particular time and cultivating common-sense approaches. 

Prof Shane Ralston of the University of Ottawa has argued that effective problem-solving begs for a plurality of approaches, whether the scope of the problem is local or global, moral or prudential, domestic or international.  

Stephen Walt, professor of International relations at the Harvard Kennedy School, famously said “the ‘compleat diplomat’ of the future should remain cognisant of realism’s emphasis on the inescapable role of power, keep liberalism’s awareness of domestic forces in mind, and occasionally reflect on constructivism’s vision of change.” 

This could be Ruto's approach amidst pressing domestic and global challenges that obviously have had an impact locally. It will be recalled that in March this year, President Ruto said he was open to buying oil from Russia as long as it would help lower the cost of the product in Kenya. 

"I am now going to move on to the agenda of making sure that we have government-to-government relationships that will progressively now begin the journey to bring the prices of fuel down," President Ruto told the BBC in an interview.

Asked if he will buy fuel from Russia, he said, "All options are available to us as a country." 

Muliro argues that Ruto's Pan-Africanism has projected Kenya as an economic and political entry to East African region and Africa as a whole. 

"Africa is increasingly asserting its sovereignty. With China great role, the West is no longer focused on telling Africans who to relate with. Options are numerous and the West, too, is in competition to get Africa on its side,” he says.  

This plays well into Iran's strategy strategy of seeking to establish a third axis, one not dominated by the East or the West, as it agrees with Ruto's new strategy of Global South Alliance. 

What will be the reaction of the traditional allies? 

Muliro opines that the traditional allies have also changed tact to contain China's expanding influence in Africa.  

"So we are going to see less sanctions due to alliances that Africans get into...more of equal negotiated partnerships rather than dominance,” he says. 

Prof Macharia Munene, who teaches History and International Relations at USIU, says it should not be a concern for Kenya that "someone won't feel good" about the Iranian visit because "that in itself would amount to acceptance of subservience".  

"The only thing is, were the policy makers in Kenya in agreeing to Raisi's visit taken all factors into consideration knowing, and they should know, that some people would not be very happy?" Macharia posed on Wednesday in a Twitter space, adding, "Does it mean because Donald Trump sanctioned Iran, then other countries cannot engage it?" 

Focus and Africa and its resources

President Raisi extensively addressed Africa in his speech in Nairobi, highlighting its capabilities and its wealth in natural resources and minerals.  

"I would want to extend my hand to all the governments on the African continent and I would want to press their hands warmly. The cooperation between the Republic of Iran with African continent and with Kenya has historical ties,” Raisi said.  

He said Africa is a continent of capacities and opportunities, and Iran's perspective to Africa is that it has a talented workforce, great material and deposit resources, and capacities, and the exchange of these capacities with Tehran will contribute to the enhancement of the relations.  

Ahead of the arrival of President Raisi, Iran Foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said Africa is historically facing numerous problems such as poverty and deprivation as the result of the rivalry between the East and the West. 

"Africa is biased to maintain political independence. The existence of a diverse export and import market is considered an important area of cooperation in Iran and the world,” he said.  

“Such potential is so enormous that Africa is described in the global political literature as the “land of opportunities” due to its high economic potential and immense natural and talented human resources,” he said in the statement. 

Dynamic diplomacy

Through what it calls "dynamic diplomacy", Iran has in recent months intensified its foray in Africa, with this month alone engaging Algeria, South Africa and now Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe.  

In Uganda, Raisi welcomed President Yoweri Museveni's request for Iran to consider investing in its oil and gas sector, by providing assistance in the development of the country’s oil refinery project.

On July 8, Abdollahian hosted his Algerian counterpart Ahmed Attaf, saying the relations between the two states are proceeding on the right track. 

In a joint press conference after the meeting, the top Iranian diplomat said they agreed to enhance bilateral cooperation in the fields of science, technology, knowledge-based companies, agriculture, medicine and medical equipment, industry, and mining. 

On his part, Attaf said the Iran-Algeria relations are extensive in various national and international spheres. 

“The Iran-Algeria relations are historical and privileged, and there lies a bright future ahead of us,” he said. 

Earlier on July 4, Abdollahian and his South African counterpart Naledi Pandor had a telephone call in which they discussed the status of bilateral ties and ways of enhancing them. 

On the sidelines of the ministerial summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Baku, the Iranian Foreign Minister met his Sudanese counterpart Ali Al-Sadiq for the first time in seven years. The two states severed ties in 2016, after Sudan followed Saudi Arabia in cutting diplomatic relations with Iran following a row over the killing of prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr. 

In the statement ahead of Raisi's visit, Abdollahian said Iran’s foreign policy is geared towards stronger interaction with Africa, and that Tehran is trying to expand balanced and inclusive relations with African countries.  

"It is hoped that in light of President Raisi’s Africa tour, grounds are paved for further enjoyment and expansion of cooperation between Iran and Africa, especially in trade and economy. President Raisi’s next African destination in the near future will be South Africa,” he said. 

Joining the fray

Prof Munene says Iran is joining into the fray over Africa just like the Japanese, Chinese, Turks, Americans and Russians in the geopolitical power play.  

"The Japanese Prime Minister was here sometime back, saying we are also here, Turkish President Erdogan has been to Africa a couple of times, we saw Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, we have seen US Secretary of State Blinken also coming, all of them trying to say that they should not be forgotten when it comes to scrambling of African resources. And when they are doing that, they are very good at discrediting each other and projecting themselves as the good ones,” Macharia says. 

So, Iran, having been isolated for a long time, it is now trying to get out of that condition, one way through acceptance in Africa as "it is a place you can leverage political interests and get noticed".  

[email protected] 

WATCH: The latest videos from the Star