Lela Gilbert is Senior Fellow for International Religious Freedom at Family Research Council. This article appeared in Newsweek on May 21, 2021.
The latest news reports are focused on the explosive results of Iran's investment in the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas—a divisive and distressing confrontation to be sure. But while all eyes are on the Middle East, Iran has not been idle elsewhere. Its persistent and growing influence in Africa has flown under the radar for many observers.
Considering the economic sanctions that limit some of Iran's more ambitious economic intentions, and the many miles that separate the Islamic Republic from the African continent, it may seem unlikely that Iran would have significant interests in Africa.
Nonetheless, alongside ISIS, al-Qaeda and various Sunni terror groups, Iran is aggressively seeking to fulfill its own Islamist conquest. This campaign involves the activities of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its many proxies—most famously Lebanese Hezbollah. But, perhaps surprisingly, Iran's ambitions are not limited to gathering resources and international prestige.
Unlikely as it may seem to ardently secular western observers, one of Iran's primary motivators is a Shiite belief in the reappearance of the Twelfth Imam, and the need to prepare for his return. This belief was openly declared by former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
In the eyes of some Iranian leaders, the lands to be conquered in preparation must be cleansed of Jews, Christians and other "infidels." In 2019, the indispensable MEMRI news site reported the words of senior Iranian Ayatollah Mohammad Mehdi Mirbagheri: "In order for the hidden imam to reappear we must engage in widespread fighting with the West."
This apocalyptic perspective is reportedly held by Iran's Supreme Leader and his closest acolytes. And unfortunately it leaves no room for Christians and Jews. Iran is today among the worst persecutors of Christians in the world.
Last year, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei demonstrated the importance of the African continent to Iran's obsessive outreach. He tweeted a photo depicting Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky, the leader of Nigeria's Islamic Movement, as an important supporter of the Iranian revolution.
In 2018, Iran instructed Hezbollah "to train Nigerians and to establish a stronghold there so that it could serve as an operational base for the rest of Africa, mainly to thwart Israeli and western ambitions in the region," according to one source close to Hezbollah leadership. Iran provided Hezbollah-style military training to hundreds of Nigerians in camps throughout northern Nigeria.
With Iranian backing, Nigerian jihadists murdered at least 1,470 Christians and abducted more than 2,200 innocents in the first four months of this year.
In Somalia—another of the world's worst persecutors of Christians—Iran "has a proxy network... and uses facilitators to provide support to violent extremist organizations to counter the influence of the United States and Persian Gulf states, including using Somalia to funnel weapons to Houthi rebels in Yemen and to transit weapons to other countries," Foreign Policy reported.
In Ethiopia, a largely Christian nation, the country's intelligence agency uncovered in February a cell of 15 people who were "casing the embassy of the United Arab Emirates" as well as a "cache of weapons and explosives," according to The New York Times. The Times reported that "American and Israeli officials say the operation was the handiwork of Iran."
No two countries provide a clearer picture of Iran's ambitions in Africa than Morocco and Algeria. Adjacent to Morocco lies the Western Sahara and its separatist movement, the Polisario Front. The United States recently recognized Western Sahara as part of Morocco, thanks to its signing of the Abraham Accords with Israel. But it is widely claimed that Polisario's soldiers are being directly trained for combat by Lebanese Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy.
In 2018, according to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, "Morocco's foreign minister, Nasser Bourita, publicly accused Iran of dispatching senior Hezbollah operatives and supplying weapons and training to the Polisario Front." These weapons shipments led Morocco to cut formal diplomatic relations with Tehran.
And as for Algeria, Tony Duheaume reported in Al-Arabiya,
The emergence of an Iranian embassy in Algeria has caused great concern to the Arab world, but then came the arrival of Amir Mousavi into the country, under the auspices of being an Iranian diplomat interested in cultural affairs. The appearance of Mousavi soon took on sinister overtones, because far from being a diplomat looking to enhance cultural ties with Algeria, it soon became apparent that Mousavi was in fact an Iranian intelligence agent, whose remit was to interfere in the dispute between Algeria and Morocco over the Western Sahara conflict.
A Nigerian friend of mine, who has observed one massacre after another in his homeland, recently wrote, "The Iranian influence in the Sahel region is massive....Various Muslim sects are well-organized, well-funded and well-equipped. Their terrorist attacks are carefully planned and effectively executed and this cannot be done without a state's influence and backing....Iran's signature, even if through proxy characters, is all over the place."
Meanwhile, in Gaza, a senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad official recounted that a portrait of the late and lionized Iranian General Qassem Soleimani—who was, by the way, a devout believer in the Twelfth Imam's reappearance—hangs in every Gaza home, and "they [Iran] are the ones who support us with weapons, money, and food."
Will Iran do any less for its burgeoning African militias?