The assassination of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Major-General Qassem Soleimani on January 3, 2020, upon departing Baghdad International Airport sent shockwaves around the world as Tehran made unspecified pledges to avenge the iconic military leader’s death. Soleimani was the chief of the IRGC’s extraterritorial division officially known as the Qods Force, which is tasked with spreading Iranian influence and arms well beyond the Islamic Republic’s borders. The Qods Force’s actions have been widely reported for close to a decade. It has worked to shore up the once-teetering regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and was instrumental in fostering several of the key Hashd al-Shaabi militias in Iraq that were raised to help beat back the so-called Islamic State. In the years before his death, Qods Force operations had become both more logistically complex and more well known, such as recruiting co-religionists in Afghanistan and Pakistan to defend Shia shrines in Syria.
But as Soleimani amassed gains in the greater Levant while the Islamic State’s proto-state project receded, a large part of the IRGC’s footprint in Africa once spearheaded by the Qods Force, in East Africa and the Horn in particular, was concomitantly diminishing. The basis for Iranian power across the African continent is much more tenuous than in the Middle East or South and Central Asia because Tehran lacks the geographic contiguity to create any sort of land bridge from which to mobilize militias and thereby expand its influence. In Africa, Iran is dependent on geopolitically competitive access to green-water ports coupled with air traffic connectivity vulnerable to international sanctions.
“Post-revolutionary Iran has been active in projecting soft power across the African continent in the decades since its 1979 Islamist takeover.”
In contrast to Iranian military adventurism through a dogmatic Shia prism in the Middle East, a far less understood phenomenon has been the actions of the late major-general’s confidants in Africa. Post-revolutionary Iran has been active in projecting soft power across the African continent in the decades since its 1979 Islamist takeover. Unlike Iranian operations in South and Central Asia and the Levant, its African doings espouse a minimal to zero sectarian dimension among traditionally Sunni populations or Sufi adherents. Rather than supporting armed Shia non-state or sub-state actors in what is portrayed as an epochal millenarian battle for Islamic legitimacy, most of Tehran’s African dealings have been cross-sectarian with a more inclusive narrative of broader political Islam that employs anti-colonialism and anti-Zionism as its organizing principles. Iranian diplomats highlighted a common Muslim identity when dealing with their African counterparts, with no acknowledgement of the often-bloody denominational schism that radiates so bitterly across the shores of the Persian Gulf. Though the Qods Force may be willing to support armed Sunni movements with localized military objectives, on the continent it steers clear of transnational Salafi movements, which are violently opposed to Shia Islam in any form in Africa or elsewhere.
The paramount example of Iranian—and thus Qods Force —partnership in Africa is the case of Sudan. When former president Omar al-Bashir seized power in 1989 some four weeks after the death of Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, his Islamist government immediately gravitated toward Iran’s revolutionary zeal then a decade on from its own popular uprising. The Iranian project in Sudan was about far more than wielding influence in Africa’s then largest nation-state. Iranian emissaries and Qods Force operatives used Sudan as a base from which to expand Tehran’s model of soft power coupled with subversive hard power objectives throughout much of Africa. The Iranian presence in Sudan served two primary purposes beyond obvious bilateralism: it gave Tehran strategic depth from which to arm Palestinian militants in Gaza, as well as Hezbollah in Lebanon further afield, while quietly encircling its rival Saudi Arabia across the Red Sea.
Though Iran was closely aligned with the Bashir regime for some twenty-five years, Saudi and Emirati involvement in Yemen’s war acted as a game changer for Sudan. In 2015, the Bashir regime effectively switched sides and aligned itself with Sunni Arab powers who were opposed to the Iranian presence in the Red Sea region.
Similarly, in January 2016, Djibouti followed Sudan in severing ties with Tehran in solidarity with Saudi interests. Iranian navy vessels were then no longer able to rest and refuel in Djibouti’s ports. The enfeebled federal authorities in Somalia immediately followed suit by cutting Somali–Iranian ties, thereby denying the Qods Force and Iranian Navy crucial littoral access to the entirety of Africa’s Red Sea and Gulf of Aden coasts.
The Iranian transshipment of arms and munitions across Africa made international headlines, however, when such deliveries destined for Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza were intercepted in the Red Sea or decimated by purported Israeli air strikes in Sudan. Arms would arrive at Port Sudan, travel north through Sudan’s Red Sea state and on to Egypt’s Red Sea governorate, and would eventually be funneled into Sinai smuggling routes leading to the tunnel network connecting to Gaza. In another scenario, Iranian arms would arrive at the strategically situated port town of Assab at the northern mouth of the Bab al-Mandeb Strait and be escorted by Qods Force members north through Eritrea into Sudan and eventually onward to Gaza via the established smuggling routes in Sinai. Iran had until recently adeptly exploited Eritrea’s pariah status on the international stage by maintaining a naval outpost there, which it used as a staging point to supply Iranian-supported Houthi fighters in Yemen. Iran did so while officially maintaining a posture of piracy interdiction and other legitimate naval aims in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.
Owing to the decades-long hermetic presidency of Isaias Afewerki, Eritrea has run an extraordinarily pragmatic foreign policy whereby it has acted as a swing state for far more powerful regional and international state actors. As the competition between Riyadh and Tehran has intensified—particularly in the wake of the late Soleimani’s battlefield gains in Iraq and Syria via Qods Force-supported Hashd al-Shaabi militias and the deadlock in Yemen—Saudi and Emirati overtures to and engagement with Eritrea have been increasing. Meanwhile, the Iranian navy has lost use of the Assab port, which is now being used to run Emirati military missions in beleaguered Yemen. In stark contrast to a decade ago, when Qods Force members were exploiting Eritrean and Sudanese territory in a vast gun-running scheme to Gazan militants, today, both Red Sea states reportedly have or had troops fighting Houthis in Yemen under the Saudi-led umbrella.
“Tehran may be down but is not out in the Horn.”
The peer competition for port facilities, economic lifelines, and overt political influence has almost entirely shifted toward the Saudi–Emirati alliance—where Egypt and Bahrain serve as junior partners—in light of their brutal Yemen campaign that began in 2015. This has been to the detriment of Iran’s naval access and clandestine Qods Force ground operations. Both Sudan and Eritrea are now firmly in the Arab orbit. Tehran may be down but is not out in the Horn. Sudan was Iran’s principal client in Africa for many years, and Afewerki could potentially pivot back toward Iran should yet another geopolitical shift hit the wider region. Though the United Arab Emirates facilitated back-channel talks that culminated in the July 2018 peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea, a veteran political survivor like President Afewerki knows that relationships of such a transactional nature may not last. The Iranians were indeed happy to do business with his government while Eritrea was under heavy United Nations sanctions that were imposed in 2009 and only lifted in late 2018 with the additional proviso that Eritrea also restore relations with Djibouti. Nevertheless, the warming of relations in the Horn of Africa has left Iran and its expeditionary Qods Force in the cold.
Soleimani’s Qods Force successor, Esmail Qaani, who served as his deputy, will now lead the military organization in the wake of its abrupt leadership decapitation. According to a March 2012 press release by the US Treasury Department, Qaani was responsible for overseeing “financial disbursements to IRGC-QF elements, including elements in Africa”. Qaani met Soleimani in the early stages of the Iran–Iraq War in the early 1980s, but the two men were of a very different character. Qaani seems to lack Soleimani’s larger-than-life persona, and in his post-war life was more of a bureaucrat than a battle-chasing man in the field, as Soleimani had a reputation for in Iraq during the fight against the Islamic State. As the Qods Force has been a traditionally opaque organization, Qaani’s doings across Africa during Soleimani’s tenure are not widely understood. The Treasury Department also sanctioned another figure named Sayyid Ali Akbar Tabatabaei, whom it described as “the Commander of the IRGC-QF Africa Corps”. Yet the Treasury notice appears to be the primary, or possibly sole, open source stating that the Qods Force maintains an “Africa Corps”.
While the aforementioned Iranian activities in East Africa and the Horn are comparatively widely known, there are only fragments of open source information on Qaani in West Africa. Most of this information relates to the October 2010 arms-seizure incident that included Katyusha rockets in Lagos whereby Nigerian officials seized more than a dozen containers of arms purportedly bound for The Gambia. Senegalese officials speculated the arms may have been for separatists in its Casamance region operating along The Gambia’s southern borderlands. The very basics of Qaani’s background, including his precise birthdate and birth city, are not entirely clear and details about his Qods Force dealings in West Africa are scant at best.
A murky instrument of potential Iranian power in West Africa is the presence of Hezbollah operatives in both Francophone and Anglophone states across the region in the human context of the Lebanese Shia diaspora there. Lebanese trading communities are an integral component of the local economies, in addition to the cash-based intra-regional economy from Senegal to Nigeria. The true scope of Hezbollah’s activity in the region isn’t known in any firmly quantifiable sense. But it could be a potential manifestation of clandestine Iranian hard power in a proxy conflict with the United States.
“What is clear is that the Qods Force leaders are masters of proxy war.”
Whether Qaani and his Qods Force cadres will exploit cash-strapped, politically volatile African states in the wake of Soleimani’s targeted assassination remains unclear, in part because so little is known of his precise dealings on the continent. What is clear is that the Qods Force leaders are masters of proxy war, as evidenced in the Levant and Yemen. Though Tehran has lost much or all of it naval access in the wider Red Sea region and is under scrutiny in Nigeria, this might be subject to change as post-revolutionary Iranian activity has taken place in much of Africa for many years. There is no telling that the current favoring of Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and other middle powers will last indefinitely. This very uncertainty is the type of environment the late Soleimani famously thrived in. His dutiful successor may well follow suit.
Derek Henry Flood is a security correspondent focusing on transnational terrorism and geopolitical fault lines. Twitter: @DerekHenryFlood