February 18, 2010 | World Defense Review

Shi’a in Senegal: Iran’s Growing Reach into Africa

As the Iranian regime celebrated its 31st birthday last week, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad first ordered and then boasted that the nuclear plant at Natanz had successfully enriched uranium to 19.75 percent purity, making, he claimed, Iran “a nuclear state.” President Barack Obama responded at a White House press conference that the United States would be working over the next few weeks to develop “a significant regime of sanctions that will indicate to them how isolated they are from the international community as a whole.” While that's a worthy objective, the administration should be aware that while it has been busy trying to coax the mullahs to the negotiating table, Tehran has hardly been idle, sending its public officials, diplomats, military officers, and mullahs around the globe, preemptively constructing a web of political, military, and commercial links against the day when they might come under serious pressure. And perhaps nowhere has this pattern of behavior been more evident than in Africa, where the Islamic Republic's growing reach presents a challenge to the strategic interests of America and its partners in an increasingly vital part of the world.

Just last week, The Economist reported:

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's controversial president, is in the vanguard of Iran's push. Two years ago in New York he said he saw “no limits to the expansion of [Iran's] ties with African countries”. Last year Iran's diplomats, generals and president criss-crossed the continent, signing a bewildering array of commercial, diplomatic and defence deals. By one tally, Iran conducted 20 ministerial or grander visits to Africa last year, reminiscent of the trade-and-aid whirlwind the Chinese brought to Africa in the mid-2000s.

The reason is not hard to fathom. Iran wants diplomatic support for its nuclear programme in parts of the world where governments are still biddable. In Latin America Iran's president has already exploited anti-American sentiment in countries such as Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela. In Africa, by contrast, where most countries have strong ties to the West, Iran has concentrated on strengthening Muslim allegiances with offers of oil and aid.

As an example of the Iranian regime's push into Africa, the British newsweekly singled out the West African country of Senegal:

Take Senegal, a 95 percent-Muslim country. Though poor and quite small in population, it carries diplomatic weight in Francophone Africa and influence at the UN, where quite a few African governments look to it for a lead on some big votes. So Iran has been bombarding it with goodwill. As well as the Khodro car factory, the Iranians have promised to build tractors, an oil refinery and a chemical plant, as well as to provide a lot of cheap oil.

Senegal's President Abdoulaye Wade has gratefully accepted this bounty, in return paying four official visits to Iran. In November he hosted Mr. Ahmadinejad in Senegal, publicly assuring him that he endorsed Iran's right to nuclear power – and accepted that this was for peaceful purposes only.

While this attention is certainly welcome and, in fact, overdue, it only scratches the surface of what has been a longstanding and calculated Iranian strategy, one that combines political and economic leverage with religious infiltration. Take the example invoked by The Economist: Senegal.

Traditionally, Senegalese Islam was overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim and dominated by Sufi orders founded by saints whose descendents, having inherited the baraka, or spiritual power, of their forefathers, continue to lead the various orders. The oldest Sufi brotherhood (tarīqa; plural, turūq) in Senegal is the Qadirīyya, which traces its origins to 'Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani in 12th century Baghdad, while the largest is the Tijāniyya, which began in Fez, Morocco, with Ahmad al-Tijani in the late 18th century. Perhaps the best known and, arguably the richest and most influential, of the Senegalese turūq is the Murīdiyya, founded in 1883 by a Senegalese marabout, Amadou Bamba, who led a pacifist struggle against French colonialism and is hailed by followers as the mujjadid, or renewer of Islam, in his age. The smallest Senegalese order is the Layene, which constitute an autonomous political-religious community for the Lebou people of the Cap-Vert peninsula north of the capital of Dakar, who are led by their own khalifa-general.

Although members of the Lebanese diaspora—currently estimated to number some 40,000 in Senegal, half of whom are Shi'a—have played a significant part in Senegalese economic and commercial affairs for over a century, it was only with the arrival of Lebanese cleric, Abdul Monem El-Zein, and the establishment of the Islamic Institute in Dakar's Plateau neighborhood in 1978 that Shi'a Islam had an institutional presence in the West African country. The Lebanese sheikh had trained in Najaf, Iraq, under the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini during the latter's more than decade long exile in the Shi'a holy city. While El-Zein's mission was supposed to be to strengthen the religious identity of the immigrant flock that supported him, he also undertook to convert Senegalese Muslims to Shi'a Islam, eventually founding half a dozen mosques and more than one hundred madrasas, or religious schools, around the country, many of them staffed by Senegalese clerics he has trained.

Meanwhile, the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran made a considerable impression on a number of Senegalese, including two brothers, Ahmed Khalifa Niasse and Sidy Lamine Niasse, sons of a prominent Tijāni marabout who had grown disaffected with the Sufi orders. The former became known at the time as the “Ayatollah of Kaolack,” a region bordering Gambia, for his outspoken calls for the overthrow of Senegal's venerable first president, Léopold Sédar Senghor, a scholarly Roman Catholic who founded the country as a secular state and, when he left office in 1980, became the first post-independence leader in Africa to voluntarily relinquish power. The latter founded Wal Fadjri, now the country's major independent daily newspaper, but originally a biweekly Islamist magazine which featured lengthy abstracts the collected works of the Ayatollah Khomeini, attacks on the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein (this was during the Iran-Iraq War), and criticisms of Saudi Arabia and the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

These activities drew the suspicion of Senegalese authorities who, under then-President Abdou Diouf, shut down the Iranian embassy in Dakar in 1984, accusing its diplomats of abusing their status to spread religious propaganda and covertly financing Senegalese media and other organizations with an eye towards interfering in the internal affairs of the country. The diplomatic mission was allowed to reopen in the 1990s and relations between Dakar and Tehran have warmed considerably since Abdoulaye Wade became president in 2000.

Wade has visited Iran no fewer than four times—in 2003, 2006, 2008, and 2009—and has received numerous Iranian leaders in Dakar, including Ahmadinejad, who has been a regular visitor since 2006. After Ahmadinejad's most recent visit in November 2009, Wade informed the Senegalese cabinet that he “reaffirmed his support for Iran's commitment to struggle against the proliferation of nuclear weapons” (!) and likewise expressed confidence in “the assurance by his Iranian counterpart to not exploit uranium for anything other than peaceful and civilian uses.” This was not the first time that Wade has made obsequious comments about the Iranian regime that went well beyond diplomatic pleasantries. In 2008, after meeting with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Senegalese head of state gushed, “We always set Iran as our example.”

While it might be premature to conclude, as Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute did two years ago in a report on “Iran's Global Ambition,” that Senegal is “now quietly turning into West Africa's Venezuela,” it is true that the West Africa nation has seen a continual stream of Iranian money, including both investment in key economic sectors and strategically targeted development assistance. As The Economist reported regarding one project in the geographic center of the Murīdiyya brotherhood, “The Israelis had offered to help the notable Sufi Muslim town of Touba to build a water and sewage system. But negotiations were abruptly broken off at an advance stage after Iran promised to carry out the same work—and give a bigger donation to the town as well as the water pumps.” Furthermore, just this month, Iran's agricultural minister, Jihad Sadeq Khalilian, and his Senegalese counterpart Fatou Gaye Starr signed four deals for cooperation in research, education and training, production of plants, water, soil and related industries.

In any event the Wade regime's close ties with the Islamic Republic will come in handy for the mullahs this week as Iran's domestic human rights record came up for its quadrennial examination before the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. Iran was one of sixteen nations being looked at during the current session in a process called “Universal Periodic Review” (UPR). As part of the process, Iran submitted a report on itself which has been rebutted point-by-point by Amnesty International in a press release which characterized the Iranian filing as distorted in its portrayal of the situation in the country. After a three-hour “interactive dialogue” at the Human Rights Council, Iran's UPR process now goes to a troika of countries to consider and make recommendations. The three are Mexico, Pakistan, and, you guessed it, Senegal. Human rights advocates are not exactly holding their breath in anticipation of any further steps, even relatively toothless ones like the appointment of a “special rapporteur,” or monitor, to follow the rights situation in Iran.

In addition to the political and economic ties, there has also been a quiet shift on the religious front in Senegal. For example, under Wade, permission was given for an Iranian cleric to build a traditional Shi'a seminary, or hawza, in Senegal, not far from the University of Dakar. At the Hawza al-Rasūl al-Akram, Senegalese youth are trained using Arabic-language Shi'a texts by mullahs trained in Iranian institutions. Already there is a small, but not insignificant, number of Senegalese Muslims who have been converted to Shi'a Islam through the efforts of these institutions and the whole raft of Iranian-sponsored “nongovernmental” organizations which the Wade regime has permitted to set up shop in Senegal, a country which, as I pointed out last month, is slated to receive some $540 million in American taxpayers' money over the next five years.

Of course, not every government is as nonchalant as that of the Wades of Senegal regarding the type of denominational imperialism practiced by Iran. In fact, it was precisely attempts at this kind of incursion that caused Morocco to sever its relations with Iran last March. According to the statement issued at the time by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation in Rabat, the Iranian diplomatic mission “attempted to change the religious foundations of the Kingdom” through activities which constituted an “intolerable interference in the internal affairs of the Kingdom” where, as I reported here last year, national religious unity—built on the Maliki school of jurisprudence, the Ash'ari theology, and the Sufi mysticism favored by the king in his capacity as Amir al-Mu'minin (“Commander of the Faithful”), a title his family claims on the basis of its descent from Fatima, daughter of Muhammad, and the fourth caliph, Ali—is an essential part of the country's highly effective, comprehensive counterterrorism policy.

Of course, no one ever accused the Iranian regime of being particularly interested in countering the inroads of Islamist extremists. To the contrary, some of its partnerships in Africa aim specifically at exporting the Islamic Revolution by exploiting the potential in Muslim countries and communities on the continent. Late last year I reported on the Iranian regime's close relations with Eritrea, whose government was subsequently slapped with sanctions by the UN Security Council for its part in supporting the Islamist insurgency in central and southern Somalia spearheaded by the al-Qaeda-aligned Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (“Movement of Warrior Youth,” al-Shabaab).

Since Umar al-Bashir seized power in 1989, the Iranian mullahs have also maintained close political, security, and ideological ties with the Islamist regime in Khartoum. Last spring, just days after the International Criminal Court charged the Sudanese despot with no fewer than five counts of crimes against humanity and two counts of war crimes for his role in the humanitarian disaster that is Darfur, the head of the Iranian parliament, the Majlis, Ali Larijani, visited Sudan and publicly embraced Bashir. Also last year, an attack, reportedly by Israeli planes, on a convoy of twenty trucks loaded with weapons southwest of Port Sudan drew worldwide attention to the arms smuggling through Sudan which had been going on for years. The arms, paid for by the Imam Khomeini Foundation, included long-range Fajr missiles which, if they had been allowed to reach there destination in Hamas-controlled Gaza, would have been capable of hitting Tel Aviv.

In addition to the Palestinian Hamas, Iran's longstanding ties with another Middle Eastern terrorist organization, the Lebanese Hezbollah, give it another African connection. As I noted here last month, Hezbollah has considerable influence and reach within the Lebanese Shi'a diaspora communities in West Africa, including the one in Senegal presided over by Abdul Monem El-Zein, who is himself reputed to be rather close to the ruling mullahs of Tehran.

Not all of Iran's activities in Africa are necessarily directly governmental. In fact, many are economic and commercial, although the line between the government and the private sector is blurred in Tehran by the cronyism inherent in business empires like the one controlled by the family of former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and numerous enterprises owned by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Last year, Deputy Foreign Minister Muhammad Reza Baqeri urged Iranian businesses to increase their operations in Africa, citing its importance to the nation. Just last week, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki was quoted in a report by the official Fars News Agency as saying, “Iran has drawn a comprehensive plan for cooperation with Africa in different fields … We are ready to design a proper mechanism with [the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, COMESA] for cooperation in agriculture, car manufacturing, and implementation of technical and engineering service projects and for supplying Africa with commercial merchandise and products as well as other fields.” Hossein Hosseini, director-general for Arab and African affairs at Iran's Trade Promotion Office, told an Iranian-African business conference last year that there was a program of forty-eight projects to expand ties with African countries, including air links, transportation, and joint banks.

In his message to the annual summit of the African Union earlier this month, President Ahmadinejad declared that “all-out ties and cooperation” with the member states was a “strategic goal” of the Islamic Republic while parliamentary speaker Larijani, in Kampala, Uganda, for the meeting of the Islamic Inter-Parliamentary Union last month, said that expanding relations with Africa is “one of the most important priorities of Iran.” There is no doubt that the regime in Tehran is pursuing a coordinated diplomatic, military, and economic strategy to secure key footholds which it hopes to expand, gradually integrating Africa into its ambitious designs to create an alternative, anti-Western international bloc. To this end, the Fars News Agency has reported that the Iranian president was due to meet a number of African heads of state at an Iran-AU summit scheduled for later this year. The question thus is not so much what Iran is doing as whether, in the face of the challenge from the rogue regime in Tehran, the United States and other countries have the clarity of vision and strength of will to commit the resources necessary to counter Iran's machinations with a comprehensive strategy of their own to actively engage African countries, isolating the mullahs and their followers as well as the containing the spread of their noxious ideology.

— J. Peter Pham is Senior Fellow and Director of the Africa Project at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy in New York City. He also holds academic appointments as Associate Professor of Justice Studies, Political Science, and African Studies at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and non-resident Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C. He currently serves as Vice President of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA).