Most criticism of the U.S. administration’s negotiation with Iran over its nuclear program points out a long list of relevant issues not addressed in the deal itself. Iran’s support of terrorism and its abysmal human rights abuses against women, homosexuals, and non-Muslims top the list.
The list is long but as critics focus on the technical level flaws, the negotiating premise that the Islamic republic is a legitimate government has immediate diplomatic consequences in Africa. It follows that Iran’s bad behavior in Africa will be emboldened and unchecked if the United States cedes to Iranian terms. Iran’s proxy Hezbollah generates millions of dollars each year through illicit trade in Africa. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Quds Forces smuggle weapons and train terrorists spanning both ends of the continent.
Iran fosters relationships in Africa primarily to export terrorism, finance terrorism and procure uranium. It does so in most African countries where anti-Western and anti-U.S. sentiment make for fertile diplomatic foundations. When Iran emerges from nuclear negotiations with the United States in strong diplomatic form, Iran’s strategic partners in Africa will be stronger as well, especially Sudan. While the U.S. struggles to be relevant and competitive in Africa, constant diplomatic fumbling continues to legitimize and empower U.S. enemies and competitors. Iran has spent years building relationships in Africa designed to subvert sanctions and serve as alternative economic and material inputs for its nuclear program.
Despite President Obama’s recent pro-democracy rhetoric in Africa, the overt willingness to deal with the authoritarians in Tehran makes it hard for Africans to take him seriously. Consider the destructive force the United States has brought to the democratic movement in Iran through the legitimization of the Iranian regime, up to and including the current nuclear deal. If the Green Movement, Iran’s pro-democracy, student-lead dissident group, was at its strongest in 2009, you could say that the U.S. administration has been their greatest enemy since then. America’s recognition, and partnering, with the Islamo-fascist regime in Tehran sends the message to the pro-democracy crowd that they are irrelevant. Now apply the same approach to the democratically elected government of Salva Kiir in South Sudan.
First, the United States held peace talks on the South Sudan conflict in Ethiopia without representatives from South Sudan. They did, however, host delegates from Sudan at the talks. Sudan’s stated interest in South Sudan is to keep it weakened in a perpetual state of civil war, which is promoted by fueling rebels with Chinese weapons. The U.S. goal in the talks was to punish South Sudanese leaders with sanctions if they fail to meet the coming August deadline. Second, this meeting comes only a few months after the United States negotiated to ease technological sanctions against the Sudanese government through a deal brokered at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington with the architect of the Darfur genocide, Sudan’s then-Prime Minister Ali Karti. That deal will likely make it easier for Khartoum to crack down on Sudan’s democratic activists.
Sudan is Iran’s most important partner in the export of terrorism to the Middle East and Africa. Sudan is the main transit corridor for Iranian weapons going to the Sinai Peninsula and the African weapons market. In mid-2011, after the referendum that completed the creation of South Sudan, war broke out with Sudan in the disputed Abyei territory and the Sudanese government in Khartoum waged a second genocide against the Nuba people. At the same time, members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Somali militants arrived to fight in South Sudan alongside the Sudan Armed Forces in South Kordofan State. Then in September, the Sudan-based Iranian Quds Force brought Russian surface-to-air missiles stolen from Libya to Sudan, which could be used against southern marginalized groups or against Israel.
Many analysts wrongly assumed that efforts by Arab states to break up the Iran-Sudan partnership would succeed. The analysis is based on events earlier this year when the war in Yemen gave the appearance that it would force Khartoum to pick sides between its Sunni brethren and its strategic ally in Tehran. The relationship between Sudan and Iran is old and strong. More than 2,000 IRGC members trained the Sudan Defense Forces in 1991. Were it not for Israel’s diligence in regional security, Tehran would likely be spinning centrifuges at an auxiliary nuclear facility somewhere outside Khartoum. According to a recent WikiLeaks document dump of diplomatic cables, Saudi Arabia believes that Israelis destroyed high-tech centrifuges for uranium enrichment in a 2012 airstrike. In 2006, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei pledged to share nuclear technology with Sudanese President Omar Bashir. It is more likely that the 2012 shipments of enrichment technology was meant for Iran’s nuclear program than for Sudan, which is not known to have nuclear ambitions. Though Iran runs weapons manufacturing facilities in Sudan, Israel has drawn clear lines regarding what it will allow Iran to do in Sudan.
Sudan is not Iran’s only serious partner in Africa. Iranian media recently reported that Tehran has received $13 billion in gold assets that had been held up by sanctions in South Africa. With a history of friendly economic and diplomatic relations, the governor of the Central Bank of Iran claimed, “The repatriation came thanks to the Iranian negotiation team’s follow-up of the matter in the ongoing nuclear talks in Vienna.”
South Africa traditionally shows support for Iran’s nuclear program and represents an economic powerhouse in Africa that the United States has failed to court competitively. If measured by utility, Iran currently holds more meaningful influence in Africa than the U.S. If it is U.S. foreign policy to accept a world where the undemocratic and repressive Iranian regime is taken seriously as a negotiating partner, then the African continent will be more hospitable to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Hezbollah than it is to U.S. defense and business interests.
• Nicholas Hanlon is the chief Africa policy analyst at the Center for Security Policy.