The defense minister of Mali was in Iran this week for meetings that could see Iran sending arms to Mali in North Africa. Malian Defense Minister Colonel Sadio Camara had meetings with Iranian Defense Minister Mohammad Reza Ashtiani.
Iran’s pro-regime Tasnim media reported that “the defense minister of Iran expressed the country’s readiness to provide Mali with military equipment and experiences in the fight against terrorism.” Ashtiani said Iran is prepared to share equipment, experiences and capabilities in training with Mali.
“The Islamic Republic of Iran will spare no effort to strengthen Mali’s defense power against the threats posed by terrorist groups,” the Iranian general who is also the defense minister added. Iran also said that Western governments were meddling in Africa and that the presence of the West in those areas was a continuation of the legacy of “colonial” policies. Iran blamed the West for creating instability.
“Although the Westerners claim hypocritically to be after security in Africa, history shows that they spread terrorism in order to justify their presence in the region and interference in the internal affairs of independent states, such as Mali,” Ashtiani added. Iran also praised Mali for supporting “Palestine and its people.”
Clearly, Iran’s goal in this case is to extend its influence to more countries in Africa. Iran already has a presence, through Hezbollah and other influencers, in some countries in West Africa.
It was not clear what Mali’s goal is in the contacts with Iran. Iranian Tasnim media said, “for his part, Camara said Mali is interested in taking advantage of Iran’s experiences in the fight against terrorism and its initiative for the engagement of people and voluntary forces in ensuring security.”
Iran and Russia's roles in Africa
The role of Iran and Russia in parts of Africa has been in the spotlight in recent years. Russia has sent contractors to Africa, under the guise usually of Wagner or other groups, to conduct operations and support governments. This comes as France and the US and others have continued to support some countries in conflicts against extremists. There is a growing threat of instability and extremism across the Sahel.
In addition, there have been terror attacks in West Africa and there is conflict in the Central African Republic and other areas. In 2017 US special forces were killed in Niger in a battle with extremists. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in Niger in March. An article at the time in Al-Jazeera noted that he went there after coups in Burkina Faso in 2022 and Mali in 2021.
An article in Atalayar in Madrid noted in 2022 “a month after French troops officially left Mali, the country continues to prepare for the new phase of power transition in a hostile climate, threatened by attacks from jihadist groups. Taking advantage of the power and security vacuum left by French troops, Russia and its paramilitary group Wagner continue to gradually fill the gaps left by the West's withdrawal. Indeed, the continuing threats to Mali, as well as the advance of terrorism in the Sahel region, provide an opportunity for Moscow to show itself as the African country's security provider and supporter and thus expand its influence.”
An article in March 2023 in Arab News also recently noted Iran’s increased role in Africa. “Iranian foreign policy toward African states is undergoing a sharp increase in activity and outreach. Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian visited Mali and Tanzania last year and Mauritania this year, opening new lines of diplomatic and shipping/trade opportunities. Weapons get mixed into such activities, as was witnessed during the days when Iran had arms factories in Sudan under Omar Bashir.”
On May 25 VOA also reported that the US had imposed sanctions on the head of Wagner in Mali. In that report, it said Russia was actually trying to acquire military equipment for use in its war in Ukraine. Russia and Iran are close partners. They have worked together on various defense programs and Iran has supplied Russia with armed drones used to terrorize Ukraine.
The relationship between Russia and Iran
The Russia-Iran relationship may explain the Mali partnership. If Russia has to draw down forces, Iran can backfill where vacuums exist. This also happens in Syria. Russia may move some assets out of Syria, but Iranian-backed militias are ready to step into the breach.
Back in 2021 a report at Al-Jazeera said Russia had supplied Mali with several helicopters. “Interim Defence Minister Sadio Camara said late on Thursday Mali had acquired the aircraft in a contract agreed in December 2020 to support its armed forces in their battle – alongside French, European and United Nations troops – with fighters linked to ISIL (ISIS) and al-Qaeda.” Camara is the same official who was in Iran recently.
Another article at Al-Mashareq also detailed Iran’s growing involvement in Africa. It noted that Iran had supplied drones and weapons to Ethiopia and Somalia. The article also noted that back in 2022 “Moroccan foreign minister Nasser Bourita accused Iran of working through intermediaries to destabilise north and west Africa.” Mali was seen as one of the bridgheads of Iran in Africa. “Iran has had a soft-power presence in Mali for several years, represented by cultural and health-related institutions such as the Iranian Red Crescent,” the report noted. It also pointed out that Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian had traveled to Mali.
Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi had also praised Africa as a center of “resistance,” meaning Iran wants to harness African countries to its causes.
Iran’s role in Africa does not dovetail with the extremist threat embodied by groups like Boko Haram or other jihadist groups. What that means is that Iran’s goal is usually to work with governments. For instance, Hezbollah used financiers in West Africa to gain influence with the former leader of The Gambia, Yahya Jammeh.
In the past, Iran was ham-handed in its Africa approach. Iran once was a major investor in the Gambia, and Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad visited the country in 2006 and 2009. But then Nigeria intercepted an Iranian arms shipment and Nigeria reported the incident to the UN Security Council and Iran was accused of hiding heroin in engine parts, according to a Radio Free Europe article in 2010. Today it appears Iran is having more success in Africa and this will have major ramifications for the role of the West and also could threaten Europe and Israel.
It is believed that instability in the Sahel could spread. UNHCR recently said “the conflict in Africa’s Sahel continues to escalate, uninterrupted by the pandemic. This latest wave of displacement in the region – which includes Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Niger – has pushed the total number of people forced to flee within their own country in the region to beyond 2.6 million.” Iran’s involvement isn’t likely to help solve this growing series of conflicts.