Africa foreign relations with Iran – Examining opportunities and challenges

The African continent comprises of 54 countries, each of which has its own politics, economic and foreign policy. However, slow economic growth and weak governance have compelled African countries to combine their collective powers in dealings with the developed world. As the African Union (AU) has been very effective in coordinating the sociopolitical and economic needs of the continent it has been used as a vehicle to promote the continent’s interests with the rest of the world.  The unfortunate consequence of this is that most countries continue to approach dealing with Africa as if dealing with a single entity. They have therefore developed straitjacket economic and political approaches to African dealings, despite African nations’ different levels of political and economic development. This is evident from the many country-specific economic conferences that have taken place with Africa over the years, including the India-Africa Forum Summit, the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation and the Turkey Africa Summit.  Notwithstanding the benefits of the AU bloc dealings with the world on behalf of African countries, some African countries, particularly those with relatively strong political and economic infrastructure, have begun to express disapproval of such an approach. South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria, among others, have been encouraging increased individual economic initiatives. This has resulted in several beneficial visits from developed nations. For example, a recent visit by US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to South Africa, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo, during which several bilateral agreements were concluded, demonstrated clear recognition of these countries beyond their participation in the AU.

Although there has been some shift in the tendency of developed countries to view Africa as a homogenous entity, this has not been the case with Iran.  Iran’s perception of Africa, which approaches the continent as a collective entity, with two distinct regions, namely North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, rather than a collection of different countries, has long been evident.  Iran-Africa relations are further complicated by Iran’s perceptions of North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. Like many countries, Iran tends to distinguish between North Africa, which it views as Muslim and primarily Arab, and sub-Saharan Africa, which it views as largely black and underdeveloped. This perception has led to the execution of a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to economic and political dealings with sub-Saharan Africa. Although Iran has experienced relative economic and political success in some countries in Africa, particularly South Africa, its engagements with many west and east African countries have stagnated.

This chapter will examine Iran’s relationship with sub-Saharan Africa and consider the opportunities and challenges of Iran’s foreign policy engagement with the continent.  This  report will examine Africa’s foreign relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran after December 1979. It will argue that varying socio-political and economic interventions by different presidents of Iran towards Africa have led to political inconsistencies that have largely failed to yield results.  This chapter will also look at external factors that continue to impede Iran’s foreign policy engagement in Africa including sanctions by western nations, the roles of Saudi Arabia and Israel in Africa, Shia expansionism and general perceptions of Iran in Africa.

Finally, it will argue that Iran’s success in Africa is largely dependent on the success of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the agreement that was reached in Vienna on 14 July 2015 between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and the European Union (EU) on the Iranian nuclear programme.

Towards understanding Iran’s foreign policy in Africa

Iran’s foreign policy towards Africa has been heavily influenced by respective Iranian leaders. Before the revolution, Iran’s foreign policy towards Africa was consistent.  For example, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, enjoyed good relations with Africa, particularly apartheid South Africa.  Iran cancelled its relationship with South Africa after the Iranian revolution and only renewing relations with the sub-Saharan African nation after South Africa’s new democratic government was installed in 1994.  According to Jeffrey A. Lefebvre, in his article Iran scramble for sub-Saharan Africa “Iranian policy toward sub-Saharan Africa under the Shah focused mainly on South Africa along with Ethiopia and Somalia in the horn of Africa”.  However, post revolution, despite established, government-agreed foreign policies for various African countries, almost all post revolution Iranian presidents have applied different foreign relations and politics in Africa, throwing Iran-Africa relations into chaos.  

President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was one of the first post revolution president to visit Africa.  However his visit to Africa was not part of Iran’s foreign policy nor was it intended to pursue meaningful relations with Africa, it was  unplanned and reactionary. They came as Iran’s ties with Europe deteriorated following the Mykonos affair involving the assassination of Iranian Kurdish dissidents in Germany[i](1).  This was perhaps the first indication of political miscalculation, opportunism and undermining of Africa by foreign policy of Iran.


To determine whether political and economic relations between Iran and Africa were always as haphazard, it is necessary to consider the history of Iran-Africa engagement.  Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the leader of Iran before the revolution in 1979, undertook an extensive project to modernise Iran in the 1950s. This modernisation angered many Iranians who disapproved of the extravagant spending of state resources amid widespread poverty. Large parts of spending also went towards modernisation of the army which.  Pahlavi also used those funds to murder more than 50 000 people.  This number  is based on estimates of the dead quickly buried after street massacres and compiled throughout the year. (2) The opposition against Pahlavi and his family intensified and led to his eventual deposition in 1979. When the United States (US) gave Pahlavi and his family refuge, the subsequent storming of the US Embassy in Tehran resulted in a refugee crisis involving 52 US citizens and diplomats. On 2 November 1979 the Iranian college students belonging to the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam's Line stormed the US embassy in Tehran and took hostages. It was the start of hostilities between Iran and the US that have yet to heal. Iran’s troubled relationship with the US spilled over to Africa affecting Iran’s relationship with the continent. While Pahlavi had enjoyed a good relationship with Africa, particularly apartheid South Africa, most African countries gave in to US pressure and rescinded their political and economic relationships with Iran.

Iran has yet to successfully revive its relationship with Africa equal to that which it had during the tenure of Pahlavi.  However, various presidents of Iran have been showing signs of reengaging Africa, albeit opportunistically. In 2010 Iran organised the Iran-Africa summit to discuss economic and political partnerships between itself and the continent. It used the summit to claim consensus amongst African nations’ regarding Iran, even though the nations attending that conference were second- and third-tier African nations with limited influence in the AU and with other African nations. Iran has continued this strategy in its attempts to re-engage with Africa, most recently under the current President of Iran, Ebrahim Raisi. Since taking office he has engaged with Mozambique, Togo, and Guinea-Bissau, rather than countries in the Horn Africa which are regarded strategic. 

Despite having an observer status in the AU, Iran has not taken advantage of that status to advance meaningful relationships with African countries as other observer-status countries have done. Iran’s nemesis Israel, which was recently admitted to the AU, has taken full advantage of this status within the union, going so far as to use its position to lobby African nations against Iran.   Saudi Arabia, another of Iran’s rivals in Africa, has also intensified efforts to improve relations with Africa going so far as to create a dedicated post within its cabinet to promote Saudi Arabia-Africa relations.

In 2018, the former Saudi Ambassador to Egypt, Ahmed Kattan, was granted the post of Minister of State for African Affairs of the kingdom and became responsible for coordinating Saudi diplomatic efforts on the continent.  Iran’s relationship with Africa was further complicated by attacks on the Saudi Embassy in Tehran in January 2016. Protesters in Tehran attacked and burned the embassy following the killing of 47 activists in Saudi Arabia including a prominent Shia cleric, Nimr al Nimr, who was critical of the Kingdom’s treatment of its Shia minority. The attack led to the expulsion of the Iranian Embassy from Saudi Arabia. Several African nations also withdrew their ambassadors in solidarity with Saudi Arabia including Somalia, Sudan and Djibouti. The fallout from this event is that Iran has struggled to regain its former position in some parts of Africa, particularly in the Horn of Africa.

Iran’s success stories in Africa

First, South Africa has been one of Iran’s staunchest African supporters going so far as to support Iran’s right to continue its nuclear program for peaceful purposes. South Africa’s relationship with Iran, as already mentioned above, can be traced back to the apartheid era. In fact, in 1941 when former Iranian Shah Ali Reza Pahlavi was forced by the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran in 1941 to abdicate, he was exiled in South Africa. He remained in South Africa until he died in 1944. After the toppling of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1979, Iran rescinded its relationship with South Africa. When South Africa gained its freedom in [2]1994, Iran was among the first countries to recognize South Africa and restored full diplomatic relations. Trade has been an integral element of this relationship, with Iranian officials estimating the value of Iranian foreign direct investment in South Africa in 2018 at roughly $135 billion (3). Moreover, sizeable number of South Africa’s refineries were Iranian designed largely dependent on Iran’s technical capability. South Africa has been importing up to 30% of its energy imports from Iran before sanctions. Lessening its dependence on Iranian oil took very serious consideration for South Africa.  However, as the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran has continued over the years, South Africa has strengthened its relationship with Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia has invested in a multi-billion-dollar oil refinery on the southeast coast of South Africa, an investment that will translate into thousands of jobs.  Saudi Arabia has undertaken [3]to build the $18-billion,  300 000-barrel-per-day refinery, which will supply as much as half of South Africa’s needs, by 2028 (4) The investment is likely to strengthen South Africa’s increasing preference for trade with Saudi Arabia over Iran.  However, besides oil importation from Iran, South Africa is one of the big players in Iranian telecommunications. South Africa telecommunication giant MTN has a huge market share in that country.  MTN Holdings owns 49% stake in the Iran cell consortium while Kowsar Sign Paniz holds 51%.  Irancell is amongst the top 50 largest companies in Iran.  

Second, Iran’s involvement in Nigeria and influence in Nigeria’s Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) led by Ibraheem El-Zakzaky also remains one of the most notable and troubling influences in Africa.  It is regarded as one of the greatest challenge for Nigeria outside Boko Haram. IMN leader Zakzaky studied in Iran and is inspired by the politics of the Iranian revolution.  He seeks to replace the Nigerian government with an Islamist state similar to the clerical regime in Tehran (5) The rise and actions of the IMN have also increased the interests of Saudi Arabia in Nigeria and the continent, as efforts to counter Shia expansionism continue. 

As Saudi Arabia concentrates its relations with East Africa, this has left a vacuum for Iran to challenge the Sunni hegemony in West Africa using the influence of leaders such as Zakzaky.

 Zakzaky is providing Tehran with the ability to disrupt key Sunni states in the region, as well as ensuring the creation and development of valuable proxy groups (6)

Third, Iran has always maintained good relations with Senegal, one of the African countries with a high rate of Iranian trade and investments, it has also intensified investment in Senegal over the years. In 2008 car maker Iran Khodro announced plans to assemble cars in Senegal through a local joint venture Seniran Auto, which is 60% Iranian owned (7). In February 2021, President Rouhani told the Senegalese ambassador to Iran in Tehran that Senegal could be a major country in Africa and that Iran could use the country as a gateway to build its relationships with other African nations.


Iran’s differential foreign policy – Relations with Africa under Ahmadinejad [4]

The Ahmadinejad presidency was arguably the administration that reset Iran-Africa relations. Ahmadinejad is regarded as the first president of Iran post the revolution to have invested time reviving relations between Iran and African nations. The previous President, Mohammad Khatami, who had grown critical of Iran’s neglect of Africa, only visited Africa towards the end of his tenure.  He visited Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Mali, Benin, Zimbabwe, and Uganda in 2005. However, the eight African nation tour came too late in his tenure to revive relationships.  In addition, falling oil prices had already led to the closure of a number of Iran’s embassies in Africa during Khatami’s tenure in office (8). Therefore besides the intent, his presidency failed to resuscitate the relationship.  Ahmadinejad on the other hand kick-started better relations with Africa by inviting African countries into bilateral discussions. The first meeting between Ahmadinejad and African nations was during the AU meeting in Banjul, Gambia in 2006.  He helped to facilitate the growth of the Iranian Red Crescent Society, the Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation clinics and other medical programmes across the continent (9).  At the time of the AU conference in Banjul, oil prices were relatively high, enabling Ahmadinejad to engage in a charm offensive.

Iran’s interest in Africa, much like that of its nemesis Israel, is largely about securing multilateral support for Iran in its continued opposition battles, such as that of its stance on Israel. Although Ahmadinejad’s advances in Africa had re-opened engagement to some extent, his statement a year earlier about “wiping Israel off the map” presented obstacles for Iran in Africa as Israel intensified its campaign to isolate Iran.

Ahmadinejad made the statement in 2005 during the World Without Zionism conference in Iran. The statement has become shorthand for Iran's belligerent - some would say genocidal - posture toward Israel (10)

 Following that statement, Israel and the US began exerting pressure on African countries to cease relations with Iran. This was a turning point in Iran’s relations with the world and remains a justification for the continued isolation of Iran till today by both Israel and the US. It is also partly what has led to a consensus on Iran as a threat to the region between Saudi Arabia and Israel.  They have subsequently increased calls for further sanctions against Iran. Thus, while Ahmadinejad did open dialogue with Africa and remains perhaps the only post revolution Iranian president to have done so, his statement on Israel was devastating to Iran’s relationship with Africa and indeed the world.

Rouhani’s JCPOA focus [5]

Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s president from 2013 to 2021, spent most of his tenure working towards the success of the JCPOA. The 2015 JCPOA agreement presented a window of opportunity for Iran to rejoin the international community. However, the agreement collapsed in 2016 following US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal of the US from the agreement. His decision to pull out of the JCPOA was influenced by several factors. First, the desire to reverse President Obama’s achievements. He also felt pressure from Israel. Afterall, his son-in-law and Middle East special advisor Jared Kushner is a Jew and a friend of Israeli former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with very close ties to Israel.  Moreover, Trump felt pressure from the Saudis, in particular Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who rejected the JCPOA arguing, like Israel that a financially empowered Iran is dangerous to the region. Despite the collapse of the JCPOA, Iran did take advantage of the relief on sanctions the agreement had afforded and improved its relations with Africa in a very short space of time. By the time Trump pulled out of the deal and sanctions were reimposed, Iran had crisscrossed Africa multiple times to strike barter deals, circumventing US restrictions on banking transactions.  (11).  By 2018, Iran had doubled its trade with the continent of Africa to $1.7billion.  While Iranian embassies continued with their efforts to promote Iranian culture and Shia expansionism activities in countries such as Nigeria; Iran, under the leadership of President Rouhani, did not hold any meaningful meetings with heads of state from any African countries beyond coincidental meetings at the United Nations General Assembly.


Rouhani was essentially elected to clean up the political mess left behind by President Ahmadinejad, in particular the backlash that was caused by the devastating statement on Israel. Rouhani, together with his foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Rouhani pushed a very aggressive foreign policy with western countries.

There was a level of optimism in Iran as JCPOA negotiations continued, with many Iranians believing that the easing of sanctions that had affected the country’s economy and politics would have a positive impact on the country. However, the election of Donald Trump in 2016 spoilt Iran’s prospects. The tenure of Rouhani, which had set about remedying Iran’s relations with Africa and reviving its economy, was rendered irrelevant by the election of Trump. Iran suddenly found itself sidelined in international news. If it was in the news at all, it was for wrong reasons, such as its support of the Houthi rebels in Yemen and Bashar al Assad in Syria. Africa took an even more peripheral position in Iran’s prioritization of external engagements except occasional visits to Iran by second-tier politicians, particularly those politicians with personal business interests in that country.  

What is at stake as Iran recalibrates its relations with Africa?  

President Ebrahim Raisi seems set to push ahead with the JCPOA. At the same time there are indications that he will also focus on improving relations with Africa. Since the beginning of his presidency, Raisi has called for increasing cooperation with Africa and has recognised the significance of natural resources in Africa and how Iran’s skills in developing and doing business with Africa, particularly Mozambique as it begins the process of gas explorations in its shores.

However, the war in Ukraine and the subsequent sanctions instituted against Russia are likely to influence Iran’s progress in Africa.  Moreover, as Russia intensifies formation of alliances to counter US and Western hegemony in the world; Iran is likely to join that alliance.  Importantly, Iran might join Russia in its underground tactics to circumvent sanctions. If indeed Iran decides to fall for Russia’s political charm offensive, it may still fail to capture hearts and minds in Africa.

Regarding the JCPOA negotiations, the process is too advanced to be jeopardised at this stage.  Nonetheless, Iran will be wary of US’s commitment considering that when the new president assumed power in 2016, he annulled those commitments. Moreover, Iran has indicated intentions to join BRICS, this if realized, could be an important step towards re-establishing relations with Africa.  South Africa is currently the only African nation to form part of BRICS, it could be soon joined by other African countries.  Accordingly, BRICS could be a strategic platform at which Iran could calibrate its relationship with Africa.  According to BRICS International Forum President Purnima Anand, Egypt has also indicated its intention to join BRICS.  BRICS group of nations have indicated that they would like to expand the bloc to include more countries. Expansion of BRICS is likely to alter the attitude and image of Iran and interaction between Iran and African countries increases.

Furthermore, Iran’s success in Africa will largely depend on its economic interventions, politics alone will yield little results. However, it is unlikely that Iran will make any inroads in Africa while sanctions remain in place. Therefore, successful JCPOA is key as it looks at improving relations with Africa. It is therefore probable that Iran could adopt a parallel approach as opportunities present themselves, both approaches could impact positively on Iran-Africa relations.  First it will certainly entertain opportunities presented by BRICS and Russia respectively.  It might also want to join China and other nations in countering Western and US hegemony in Africa.  Second, it will continue engaging JCPOA and hope that it succeeds in order to continue facilitating it political and economic recalibration in Africa.

Ultimately, Raisi is likely to invest further in public diplomacy in Africa through the increased number of Iranian embassies that were recently opened.  However, he will face additional impediments in his efforts to improve relations with Africa especially as countries such as Israel and Saudi Arabia continue to push back Iran’s influence in the continent. Israel’s continued efforts to establish relations with Africa pose a renewed challenge for Iran. Israel has established a reciprocal relationship with Africa largely relying on Africa’s multilateral platform support in return for providing essential technology, particularly water-related technology, as well as other much-needed material support for African countries. Israel exports chemical products, machinery and agricultural technology, being one of the leading exporters in this regard.  This has attracted many students from Africa to Israel to acquire new knowledge and skills.  Saudi Arabia on the other hand continue to make substantial investment in Africa particularly in South Africa.


The future of Africa Iran Relations

Israel has continued to use Ahmadinejad’s statement that Israel “should be wiped off the map” to justify why the world should still isolate Iran notwithstanding subsequent spin by the Iranians that the statement was taken out of context.  Furthermore, although Iran maintains that its nuclear program is peaceful and meant to augment its energy needs; the country has failed to convince the world of its intentions. Saudi Arabia has argued that Iran will use its new economic gains to continue creating instability in the region, particularly by support political and militant organisations such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthi movement in Yemen. These two stumbling blocks will continue impeding foreign relations between Iran and Africa.  Iran continues to display confidence despite biting sanctions; however, it is desperate to have sanctions lifted and successful JCPOA is the only way out.


Despite criticism and sanctions, Iran continues to support groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen and promote expansionism of Shia as a desirable dominant politics in the world .(12).  This attitude, combined with Iran’s track record of supporting radicalism and encouragement of undiplomatic actions, including storming of nations’ embassies in Tehran, has raised serious concerns of whether Iran could be trusted.

Moreover, the promotion of Iranian cultural activities and Shia Islam expansionism, particularly in countries with Shia presence is also another concern for African countries. The [8]Iranian revolution emboldened Iran to engage in “construction and development crusade” (jihad-e-sāzandegi) projects in Africa.  Consequently, African countries such as Nigeria remain particularly disconcerted about the prospects of a financially viable Iran in Africa.  

While such concerns are valid, a financially empowered Iran could have significant benefits for Africa as well. The lifting of sanctions could enable Iran to establish new oil import corridors, particularly with African countries along the Indian Ocean.  Iran is positioned on the Persian Gulf which has a much easier access to the Indian Ocean.  This could reduce oil prices across Africa.  Iran could also play an important role in Mozambique as the country begin its gas exploration in its northern provinces.   President Raisi met with Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi during the sixth Gas Exporting Countries Forum in Doha, Qatar recently. Raisi said that Iran is ready to expand trade and economic cooperation with African states, especially Mozambique, and share experiences and technical know-how with these countries (13). Both countries could benefit greatly from Mozambique’s gas exploration projects, especially if Iran is allowed to participate in the development of bulk infrastructure in Mozambique, a technical area which Iran has immense experience. Such cooperative efforts could establish Mozambique as a likely avenue for Iran’s reengagement with Africa.

Having said that, other Africa has seen huge traffic of countries lining for its resources including Gulf countries investing heavily in the Horn of Africa. Introducing another global player into the African political scene could further complicate the continent’s political playing fields.


The political tenure of President Ahmadinejad may have had its shortcomings, but Ahmadinejad was the first Iranian president to demonstrate real interest in meaningful engagement with Africa.  His tenure culminated into meetings with African leaders, summits and conferences.  Ahmadinejad sponsored several conferences between Iran and Africa, of which the two-day Iran-Africa summit in 2010 was perhaps the most important indication of his strategic interest in Africa as it brought together heads of state, diplomats, business leaders, and cultural representatives from over 40 African nations to discuss a plethora of issues and subsequent Iranian presidents demonstrated comparatively little interest in Africa accounting for Iran’s historically limited interactions in Africa.  Additionally, to a general lack of interest from Iranian leaders, the success of Iran’s engagements in Africa has been influenced by its dealings in the Arab world particularly in countries such as Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and others. The continuing support of what a[ii]re deemed to be terrorist organisations in these countries has not eased Iran’s efforts in Africa. Saudi Arabia, which conflicts with Houthi-backed Iran in Yemen, continues to use its influence to block Iran from thriving in Africa. It has used Iran’s support of these organisations as a warning to African countries considering improving relations with Iran. If these inducements are not enough, the occasional friction between the government of Nigeria and the IMN in Kaduna state is yet another reminder why normalising and improving relations with Iran could pose a risk for African countries. As developed nations, including Israel, Turkey, the US, Saudi Arabia and others continue to dominate politics in Africa, it will take a great deal of effort for the proliferation of Iran’s foreign policy in Africa, irrespective of the renewed efforts of its current president, to thrive in Africa.


If Africa continues to be affected by Islamic terrorism and Iran is perceived to be a sponsor of that terrorism, African countries are likely to be skeptical in dealing with Iran, particularly those countries that are home to Muslim minorities. Moreover, African countries have strong and deep relationships with Western countries, they are also addicted to western goods and services, this reality could certainly hamper Iran’s efforts in trying to revive relations with the continent.  Moreover sanctions against Iran are likely to continue preventing Africans from openly engaging with Iran.

In conclusion, besides bilateral relations Iran enjoys with several countries; sanctions continue to prevent the country from competing for global economic opportunities.  Successful JCPOA could be a game changer for Iran in Africa notwithstanding other challenges mentioned above.  In the absence of a successful JCPOA, sanctions will continue to affect Iran’s ability to deal openly in business and interact politically with Africa. Second, the success of its foreign policy in Africa will also depend largely on how it deals with negative public perception as the main exporter of terrorism and global instability. It would also have to demonstrate that it does not intend to promote or support organisations that have propensity to destabilize Africa.  Shia expansionism in Africa continue to send the wrong messages about Iran’s intention in the continent. The bombing of the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran has been bad for Iran’s political prospects in Africa. Third, Israel and Saudi Arabia has taken every opportunity to isolate Iran and emphasize the possible risks of an empowered Iran in Africa. Saudi Arabia’s investment in a refinery in South Africa is likely to entrench its position and influence in Africa and could weaken ties between South Africa and Iran.  

Finally, Iran has a mountain to climb in recalibrating relations with Africa.  It will have to prioritize it public diplomacy efforts. Continuing with its Shia expansionist projects will likely backlash.  The country must relook at its general communications strategies in Africa. Importantly it must drop its hyper religious and Iranian culture specific public diplomacy efforts in Africa if it is to succeed.




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