Accessibility links

Increasingly Isolated, Iran Looks Toward Africa

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad (right) with his Zimbabwean counterpart Robert Mugabe -- Tehran's last allies?

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad (right) with his Zimbabwean counterpart Robert Mugabe -- Tehran's last allies?

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's current visit to Nigeria and Mali is yet another attempt to forge new alliances with African states in the hope that this can offset his country's growing isolation. Attending the July 4-8 Developing Eight (D8) summit in Abuja, Ahmadinejad is trying to rally support for his show of resistance against growing U.S.-led international pressure.

Ahmadinejad launched his Africa tour with a one-day visit to Bamako to meet with Malian leaders. Although bilateral ties between Iran and Mali have never been very close, Ahmadinejad's administration would like to try to expand relations as part of Iran's wider approach to the African states. Three months ago he paid a similar visit to Zimbabwe and Uganda.

Mali gained its independence from France in 1960 and became a democracy after a successful military coup led by the current president, Amadou Toure, in 1991. Mali's first democratic presidential election was held in 1992 and Alpha Konare won the election. Konare was reelected in 1997 and succeeded in 2002 by Amadou Toure, who subsequently won a second term in 2007.

Although Muslims constitute 90 percent of Mali's population of nearly 14 million, the country, at least before September 11, 2001, was considered a model of secularism and democracy in Africa. Since then, however, a steady rise of Islamic fundamentalism has provoked serious concerns about the country's future direction.

Ahmadinejad and his administration seem keen on tapping such latent potential, providing Mali with economic aid to establish a foothold there that could be converted into possibilities for enhanced influence in the future.

Ahmadinejad's similar visits to Zimbabwe and Uganda, however, failed to produce results because the Iranian president faced harsh criticism from his host politicians. During his visit to Harara in April, Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai called Ahmadinejad a "war monger, a trampler of human rights, and an executioner of dissenting voices" even before the Iranian president left his country for Uganda.

During the second leg of his current trip, Ahmadinejad is due to attend a summit of the so-called D8 countries in Abuja. It is very likely, even at this very low-profile gathering of eight developing Islamic states, that Ahmadinejad focus attention on global political, economic, and social problems, bypassing the major issues facing his isolated country.

Developing Islam

Nigeria, the host of the summit, is the most populous country in Africa, with a population of 150 million. Nearly 50 percent of Nigeria's population is Muslim, but 389 ethnic groups give the country a cultural diversity not usually associated with Islam. In fact, Nigeria is neither an Islamic nor a Christian country. Considering the country's balanced religious makeup, its association with the D8 group has been challenged by many Nigerian scholars, who fear that Nigeria might have been pushed through as part of a larger process of Islamization.

Perhaps incumbent Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, himself a Christian, is aware of such arguments, but prefers nonetheless to be connected to the D8 group, hoping that it could somehow expand scope of foreign investment in his country.

The D8 group is a development-cooperation organization that includes the states of Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Turkey. It was established on June 15, 1997, and its stated objectives are: to improve member states' position in the global economy, to diversify and create new opportunities in trade relations, to enhance participation in decision-making at the international level, and to improve standards of living.

The D8 group was the brainchild of Necmettin Erbakan, the then pro-Islamic prime minister of Turkey, who during a seminar on cooperation and development in Istanbul in October 1996 brought it up for the first time. This conference was the first step toward the establishment of the D8, which was officially established at a summit in Istanbul in 1997.

The D8 group would like to be seen as a global arrangement rather than a regional one, as its membership reflects, envisioning cooperation among countries stretching from Southeast Asia to Africa.

Since the D8's founding, member states have gone through different political and economic transformations. As a result, some member states, including G20 member Turkey, seem to be losing interest in the group. These days the D8 group appears to be rather less than a fully functioning global cooperation. But Ahmadinejad has different designs.

Reza Taghizadeh is a regular contributor to RFE/RL's Radio Farda. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL