Iranian foreign minister and the president of Tanzania, August 2022 (Iranian foreign ministry Twitter account, August 27 2022).
Kenyan student in Mustafa International University image video (Mustafa International University YouTube channel, April 18, 2016).
Recorded testimony of Iranian Hamid Salari (Twitter account of Iran International in English, May 31, 2023).
The Iranian vice president cuts the ribbon opening the Iran House for Innovation and Technology in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya (Iran in Kenya Twitter account, January 29, 2021).
Iranian Mohajer-6 UAV, sold by Iran to Ethiopia (Meshkat Twitter account, July 13, 2022).
- Iran engages in both overt and covert activities in East Africa. Its overt activities are the establishment of political, economic and ideological-educational ties with countries in the region to strengthen its local status, contribute to the Iranian economy by circumventing the oppressive sanctions imposed by the United States and other Western countries, and to counterbalance Saudi Arabia’s growing influence and status in the region.
- Iran’s covert activities (in which Hezbollah often participates) include creating and fostering connections with local terrorist organizations, trading and delivering arms to them and to countries (Ethiopia, for example), and recruiting local operatives to establish and operate covert cells to attack interests and targets affiliated with Iran’s enemies.
- In ITIC assessment, Iranian activities pose two significant challenges for Israel. Indirectly, they threaten Israel’s relations and cooperation with East African countries, and directly, Iran’s covert activities mark Israel interests, facilities and civilians as attack targets, as the prevention of such Iranian initiatives has shown in recent years.
Overt Iranian Activity in East Africa
- For decades, including under the Shah, East Africa has been an arena for overt Iranian activity. Since the Iranian Islamic Revolution in 1979, the government of Iran has worked to develop political and economic relations with regional countries as part of exporting the revolution’s ideology, facilitated by the tendency of many East African countries not to identity with any camp in the international arena. Over the years, Iran’s involvement in East Africa has changed according to the foreign policy of the presiding Iranian president and has fluctuated between extreme and minimal.
- East Africa is important for Iran because of the potential profits to be made from political and economic cooperation in view of its natural resources and economic development, and because of its strategic location, close to the Bab al-Mandab Strait and the main international maritime and shipping lanes. In recent years that has led to a struggle between Iran and its regional rival Saudi Arabia for control and influence over East Africa, especially the Horn region. The civil war in Yemen (which lies across from the Horn on the other side of the Bab al-Mandab Strait) and the rise of the Iranian-backed Houthi movement provided an incentive for Saudi Arabia to strengthen its cooperation with the Horn of Africa countries and to establish institutions that would serve as umbrella organizations for regional and other states to halt Iran’s influence.
East Africa (Inside Africa Facebook page, June 7, 2021).
- Politically, Iran works to strengthen its ties with East African countries by opening legations and having Iranian representatives visit them frequently. The political rivalry with Saudi Arabia surfaced in 2016, when Iran’s embassies in Sudan and Somalia were closed following Saudi Arabian pressure. The stalemating of the contacts for renewing the nuclear agreement between Iran and the Western powers led Iran to look for ways to circumvent the oppressive sanctions and to enlarge its global influence. Its relations with the East African countries may provide it with an effective venue because of the tendency of many African countries not to take sides in Iran’s confrontation with the West.
- Economically, Iran has relations with many African countries, although they are not Iran’s primary targets for its exports. The current Iranian government, under President Raisi, has expressed its desire to expand economic relations and exploit the opportunity to penetrate the rapidly developing East African market, which does not particularly adhere to the sanctions imposed on Iran (IRNA, May 7, 2022; Tehran Times, August 27, 2022; Shana, March 3, 2021.
- Iran also wants to export the ideology of the Iranian Islamic Revolution to East Africa through education. For example, Iran’s Mustafa International University has branches throughout the world, including in Africa, and in addition to traditional academic subjects, students also study Shi’a Islam and Shi’ite culture, which provides a potential foundation for the growth of Iranian revolutionary ideology. Many Africans study on the various campuses or go to study in Iran and later return to their home countries. Another Iranian institution which is liable to encourage the spread of revolutionary ideology is the Islamic Culture and Relations Organization (ICRO) which disseminates Iranian culture and has branches in Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe (ICRO website).
Right: Iranian foreign minister and the president of Tanzania, August 2022 (Iranian foreign ministry Twitter account, August 27 2022). Left: Kenyan student in Mustafa International University image video (Mustafa International University YouTube channel, April 18, 2016).
Covert Iranian and Hezbollah Activity in East Africa
- Since the Iranian Islamic Revolution, in addition to its overt activities in East Africa, Iran also carried out covert activities, often in collaboration with its subordinate organizations and parties, such as Hezbollah, mainly in support of local organizations and by handling African and foreign agents. For years Iran has supported organizations which fought against the government of Ethiopia for Eritrean independence, which was achieved at the beginning of the 1990s. During the first decade of the 21st century, Iran supported the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) in Somalia, which fought against the Somali government and from which the al-Shabab organization later split, in return for the possibility of acquiring Somali uranium. Iran’s relationship with the ICU expanded to include weapons for its operatives in Somalia, training by Hezbollah operatives, and the recruitment of some of them to the ranks of Hezbollah, who participated in combat against Israel in the Second Lebanon War. At the same time Iranian civilians were active in East Africa and established local cells to attack prominent targets, such as foreign embassies and legations. In most instances the initiatives came to nought because the operatives were arrested by local security forces, with the help of Western and other espionage agencies.
- Iran continues its covert activities and in recent years has exploited the restrictions imposed by the United States and Israel on support for the Ethiopian government during the war in the Tigray region in the north of the country. The restrictions were imposed because of concern the government was carrying out war crimes. Given the opportunity, Iran began sending arms to Ethiopia, including UAVs. Iran apparently exploited the Israeli restrictions on supplying Ethiopia with weapons to subvert the Abraham Accords between Israel and its Arab Middle Eastern partners by claiming the restrictions exposed the real face of Israel, which cooperates with its friends until it is no longer in its interests, and then does not hesitate to stab them in the back.
- As Iran supported the ICU during the first decade of the century, according to reports, today Iran supports al-Shabab in Somalia with weapons and money, and assists it in attacking American and foreign forces serving in the country. According to the reports, after al-Shabab operatives attacked American and foreign targets, the Somali security forces found evidence and materials at the scenes of the attacks which originated in Iran. In addition to supporting al-Shabab, Iran uses Somalia as a platform for transferring arms and other equipment to the Houthis in Yemen and to other East African countries, such as Kenya, South Sudan, Tanzania and Mozambique. Using the Qods Force, Iran also created ties with criminal organizations in Somalia, a network it uses to smuggle oil to Somalia which it then sells throughout Africa, thereby evading the American sanction on its oil industry (Foreign Policy, July 17, 2023).
- Some of Iranian’s initiatives succeeded but some were detected and foiled. In 2021 a cell of Iranian operatives was exposed in Ethiopia. They planned to attack UAE legations in Ethiopia and in neighboring Sudan, apparently in retaliation for the assassination Qassem Soleimani, commander of the IRGC’s Qods Force, and Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the chief of Iran’s nuclear program. The Ethiopian security forces arrested 15 suspects with weapons and explosives in their possession. The leader of the network was detained in Sweden, the result of the cooperation between the intelligence services of various countries (The New York Times, February 15, 2021; Ma’ariv, February 15, 2021).
- The prevention of another attack was made public when an Iranian named Hamidreza Abraheh, aka Hamid Salari, was arrested in Tanzania in 2022. He confessed he “belonged to the Iranian intelligence ministry.” He said his role was to establish an Iranian “branch” in Tanzania and to promote the assassinations and abductions of American, Saudi Arabian, Israeli and Azeri citizens throughout Africa. During interrogation he revealed that other ministry “branches” were also established (Walla, March 30, 2023; Iran International, March 31, 2023).
Right: Iranian weapons smuggled into Somalia and seized by the United States Navy (US Navy Facebook page, February 16, 2021). Left: Recorded testimony of Iranian Hamid Salari (Twitter account of Iran International in English, May 31, 2023).
Iran and Hezbollah Activity against Israeli Targets in East Africa
- One of the objectives of Iran’s covert activities in East Africa is to attack Israeli facilities and interests and to hamper the ties Israel has formed with regional countries. One such example was Iran’s attempt to supply Ethiopia with arms during the war in the Tigray region. When Israeli eventually agreed to supply Ethiopia with drones (which were not intended for offensive purposes) and equipment for gathering intelligence, Iran began supplying Ethiopia with Mohajer-6 attack drones. Thus Iran does not hesitate, and may even aspire, to make contacts and operate in East African countries which have close relations with Israel, with the objective of subverting the Israel’s political efforts, as, for example, in Kenya, where Israel is a partner in various endeavors.
- Iran also carries out covert activities against Israel, several of which were exposed over the past few years by arresting Iran agents and the preventing them from executing their plans. In 2019 a Hezbollah operative from Lebanon was arrested in Uganda. His mission had been to identity Israeli and American targets in East Africa, recruit local Muslim operatives and send them as Iranian agents to Mecca in Saudi Arabia for the hajj. A Hezbollah operative was exposed and detained thanks to cooperation between Uganda’s security services and the Israeli Mossad (Walla, July 23, 2019; Israel HaYom, July 23, 2019).
- In 2021, similar Mossad cooperation with the intelligence authorities of Tanzania, Ghana and Senegal led to the arrest of five local operatives recruited by the Qods Force. They were arrested on suspicion of planning to attack Jewish targets, Israeli tourists at a safari in Tanzania and Israeli businessmen in Senegal and Ghana. It was also reported that they had been sent from Africa to Lebanon, where they underwent training and received equipment for carrying out the missions (Israeli TV Channel 12 news, November 7, 2021 ; Ma’ariv, November 7, 2021).
- About three weeks after the five were arrested, it was reported that the Kenyan security services had arrested an Iranian agent on suspicion of involvement in planning a terrorist attack against Israeli interests and facilities. According to the report, the agent, who was working for Iranian intelligence, was in contact with Kenyans who had ties to local terrorist organizations and planned to collaborate with them to attack targets he had identified. It was also reported that the Iranian agent made attempts to operate in countries bordering Kenya as well (Walla, November 28, 2021 ; Israel HaYom, November 28, 2021).
Right: Iranian Mohajer-6 UAV, sold by Iran to Ethiopia (Meshkat Twitter account, July 13, 2022). Left: The Iranian vice president cuts the ribbon opening the Iran House for Innovation and Technology in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya (Iran in Kenya Twitter account, January 29, 2021).
- Iran’s activities in East Africa in recent years illustrate that the region is an important strategic target for its global policies. Along with overt activity in regional countries and attempts to create political, economic and ideological-educational ties with them, Iran also carries out covert activities, mainly through the Qods Force and Hezbollah, to identity and attack Western and Israeli targets and to create ties to local organizations for assistance. Such activities are also an attempt to evade the sanctions imposed on Iran by the United States and its allies, which have done substantial damage to Iran’s economy.
- In ITIC assessment, Iranian activity poses a significant threat to Israel’s interests and objectives in East Africa, as well as to Israel’s relations with East African countries. The indirect threat to Israel is manifested by disrupting its ties and cooperation with East African countries, which is liable to cause political and economic damage. The direct threat is manifested by the danger of a physical attack on Israel’s interests, facilities and civilians in East Africa, carried out by Iranian and Lebanese operatives and by local operatives handled by Iran and Hezbollah.
 For further information about the development of Iran foreign policy regarding East Africa in recent years, see Eric Lob, "Iran-Africa Relations under Raisi: Salvaging Ties with the Continent," The Muslim World, 2023. ↑
 For further information see Giorgio Cafiero and Corrado Cok, "Understanding Iranian Influence in the Horn of Africa," Inside Arabia, August 5, 2020. Generally speaking, today all of Africa is an arena for political and economic power struggles between many actors, among them the United States, China, Russia and Turkey, to name but four. The weakening of American influence, and recently of French influence in Western Africa, has enabled other actors to gain a political and economic foothold in many African countries and to increase their influence over events. ↑
 For further information about the Houthis in Yemen, see the March 14, 2023 report "The Houthi Movement and the War in Yemen: Development and Significance." ↑
 One such organization is the Council of Arab and African States Bordering the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, established by Saudi Arabia in 2020, with the membership of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia, Sudan andYemen. See: Corrado Cok, "Competing for cooperation in the Red Sea," New Europe, June 12, 2020 and "Jeddah Summit...Regional Coordination to Face Challenges," Asharq al-Awsat, September 6, 2022. ↑
 Sabena Siddiqui, "Iran's growing outreach to Africa," The New Arab, September 12, 2022. ↑
 Glen Segell, "Iran Educates and Radicalizes Africa through Religion," Research on Islam and Muslims in Africa, January 2019; "How Iran exports its Ideology," United Against Nuclear Iran, 2023. ↑
 For further information about the collaboration between Iran, Hezbollah and the ICU in Somalia, see the UN Security Council report from November 22, 2006. For further information about the involvement of Iran and Hezbollah in Somalia over the years, see Banafsheh Keynoush, "Iran’s Africa-Pivot Policy," Middle East Policy, 2021. ↑
 That was possible because the sanctions imposed on Iran by the UN expired in 2020, but also did great damage to Ethiopia's relations with the United States. ↑
 Lob, "Iran-Africa Relations…". ↑
 The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps' elite unit, which spearheads the export of the Iranian Revolution. ↑
 Lob, "Iran-Africa Relations…". ↑
 See, for example, "Iranian High-Tech Delegation visit Kenya on January 27, 2021, for bilateral talks with their Kenyan counterparts," at https://kenya.mfa.gov.ir/en/newsview/624942/Iranian-High-Tech-Delegation-visit-Kenya-on-January-27-2021-for-bilateral-talks-with-their-Kenyan-counterparts. ↑