Although the Islamic Republic’s economy has for some years been teetering on the brink of collapse, it nonetheless sponsors medical clinics in Niger, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, Uganda, and several other African nations, as well as various academic and religious institutions. Like many technologically advanced nations, it does so to accumulate influence or “soft power” in developing countries. But Nicholas Rodman believes that is not the only reason:
Iran [wishes] to foster growing minorities of African Shiites in the region and potentially use them as terrorist proxies, or establish footholds in places where they can circumvent international sanctions. Moreover, given Niger’s status as having the fifth-largest deposits of uranium in the world, Iran in all likelihood seeks access to such resources, all of which could have implications for the growing presence of United States and [other] Western military personnel in the region.
Iran has also set up . . . branches of Al Mustafa International University, whose main campus is located in [the Iranian holy city of] Qom under the supervision of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. According to the U.S. Treasury Department which recently placed sanctions against the university, these branches serve as Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force outposts to recruit intelligence sources, convert and indoctrinate locals, and develop foreign-student exchanges. . . . [B]ranches exist throughout Africa in countries that do not have significant Muslim or Shiite populations including in the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa, and Madagascar.
Niger’s southern neighbor Nigeria has faced a series of terrorist activity in the last decade tied to the Islamic Republic. . . . The growing U.S. military presence in the region might additionally put itself at risk of attack, not only from Salafist movements like Boko Haram or Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, but from unencumbered Iranian-backed, Iranian-trained, and Iranian-indoctrinated radicalized terrorists unimpeded by sanctions.
Given Iran’s recent historical patterns of using shadowy proxies to commit acts of terror, including the 1996 Hizballah-linked attacks in Saudi Arabia on the Khobar Towers housing U.S. Air Force personnel, the Islamic Republic could strike at U.S. interests in places where U.S. officials least expect.