The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

Iran is expanding its influence in the Sahel region through political, economic, and military strategies, capitalizing on local vulnerabilities and the retreat of Western powers.

Iran’s influence in the Sahel is a complex and evolving issue, characterized by a blend of political, economic, and military strategies. The Sahel region, which includes 11 countries in West and North-Central Africa, grapples with challenges like population growth, poverty, climate change, and violent insurgencies. To address these issues, local governments are increasingly seeking foreign assistance, and Iran is keen to fill this gap.

While the United States and Israel remain preoccupied with the Iranian-dominated Shia crescent spanning from Lebanon to Yemen, Tehran is quietly laying the groundwork for a second crescent that threatens U.S. interests in the Sahel. Iran is capitalizing on the region’s vulnerabilities and the retreat of Western powers to expand its influence, access vital resources, destabilize moderate governments, and disrupt Israeli-Arab normalization efforts.

Iran’s objectives in the Sahel are multifaceted. First, it aims to bolster its international legitimacy and gain leverage over its rivals, including Saudi Arabia and Western countries. Second, it seeks to spread its Shi’ite ideology and expand markets for its commercial exports.

The Sahel region hosts significant Shi’a communities, notably in Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, northern Nigeria, and Senegal. These communities, often minorities within predominantly Sunni populations, have their economic and political ties shaped by their connections with Iran and other regional powers.

Iran maintains bilateral diplomatic relations with Sahel countries, engaging in high-level visits and signing agreements on cooperation in fields such as counterterrorism, economic development, and education. Economically, Iran aims to tap into the region’s natural resources, such as gold and uranium, which are crucial for its economy. It also provides economic aid and infrastructure projects to cement its influence.

The recent spate of coups in the Sahel has presented Iran with opportunities to advance its anti-Western agenda. As discontent with French and other Western influences grows, Iran is poised to exploit the shifting dynamics. This competition could spark a new economic battleground between Iran and Western powers, with other nations like Turkey and Morocco also vying for a foothold. Turkey, in particular, is making moves with advanced combat drones and the development of a trans-Saharan corridor.

Iran’s engagement in the Sahel dates back to the 1980s, following the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Initially aligned with the U.S. during the Cold War, post-revolution Iran sought to spread Shi’ite theology in West Africa through cultural, diplomatic, and media channels. This mission faced opposition from Saudi-led regional powers.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Iran’s diplomatic ties with Sahel countries involved frequent visits and strengthened bilateral relations. This trend continued into the 2000s with a focus on countering terrorism and expanding economic ties. In the 2010s, Iran’s outreach persisted with high-level visits and cooperative agreements in various sectors, reflecting a strategic approach to deepen its influence.

In the 2020s, Iran has taken advantage of the growing rift between post-coup leaders in the Sahel and Western nations. By leveraging strained relations, Iran aims to solidify its influence. Perceptions of Iran among local Shi’a communities are mixed; some see it as a protector of their interests, while others are cautious of its radical influence. Shi’a business communities, concerned about their ties with Sunni interests and Western entities, often remain discreet in their political support for Iran.

Iran employs a range of soft power strategies in the Sahel, including educational, cultural, and charitable initiatives. One notable effort is the expansion of the Islamic Azad University, with proposed branches in key cities like Damascus and Baghdad. These initiatives aim to bolster Iran’s ideological and political objectives, strengthen ties with local communities, and extend its influence.

Cultural exchange programs are another tool in Iran’s arsenal, designed to build connections and spread its values. Iran’s charitable organizations, such as the Red Crescent Society, provide humanitarian aid and disaster relief, enhancing Iran’s reputation and fostering goodwill.

Iran is exploiting the divide between Sahelian leaders and Western powers, positioning itself as a key player where Western influence is waning. Suspicions have also surfaced about Iran’s collaboration with Russia to replace Western dominance in the Sahel through financial, security, and military support. The presence of Iranian-backed groups like Hezbollah raises concerns about proxy conflicts and further destabilization.

The Sahel’s rich natural resources are a key target for Iran, which aims to circumvent sanctions and bolster its economy. This could lead to economic competition with Western countries. Iran’s intent to spread Shi’ite beliefs in the Sunni-dominated Sahel risks heightening sectarian tensions and could clash with the appeal of Sunni extremist groups, exacerbating regional security issues.

Iran is likely to continue expanding its influence in the Sahel through economic partnerships, particularly in natural resources and infrastructure development. It will also persist in providing military support to Sahelian nations, enhancing their defense capabilities and challenging Western influence in the region.

Zubair Mumtaz a Conflict/Security Analyst and M.Phil. Scholar. Currently, he is a Research Associate at Radiant Journal Foundation. Zubair explores the complexities of regional/Global dynamics, offering insightful perspectives on security issues and conflict.