On January 23, 2023, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister for Political Affairs, Ali Bagheri paid a visit to a seemingly unlikely place, the landlocked West African nation of Burkina Faso. Given Iran’s current economic struggles, and crippling sanctions against it, Tehran’s decision to pay such a visit and prioritize a relatively geopolitically inconsequential and volatile country thousands of miles away from its self-perceived sphere of influence in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East seems quite surprising.

On paper, the visit appeared somewhat innocuous by Iranian foreign policy standards, and was also part of a multinational tour which included a visit to the Republic of Niger. The Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ official website issued a pro forma and fairly dull statement describing its purpose as an exchange of “views on ways of forging closer economic cooperation between the two countries, increasing mutual trade and holding exhibitions showcasing Iranian products.” Nevertheless, the ministry’s statement also included a jab at Burkina Faso’s old colonial power, France, proclaiming that “the independence day for African countries was the day when they managed to extricate themselves from the clutches of European governments that violate human rights.” While not evident at first, the statement offered several clues as to why Iran sought to engage with Burkina Faso, including on an economic and ideological level.

To answer the question “why Burkina Faso?” one must look at the small African nation’s revolutionary and recent politically tumultuous history, its prized natural resources, current political instability, and religious demography. It does not take that long to find a list of major political disruptive events in the country. In 2022 alone, Burkina Faso suffered two military coups d’état. Going back another decade, the nation suffered through several other coups, despite a brief period of somewhat democratic rule after the overthrow of the country’s longtime strongman, Blaise Compaoré who took over in 1987 and ruled until 2014.

What the Islamic Republic might be attempting to exploit, made evident by its anti- Western and anti-French remark within the foreign ministry’s statement, is the legacy of Burkina’s most famous and infamous post-independence leader, Thomas Sankara. Affectionately known as the “Che Guevara of Africa”, Sankara took power in 1983 after a coup and quickly added a Marxist revolutionary flavor to his reign. Some of his highlights included renaming the country from its colonial name of Upper Volta to its current name meaning “Land of Incorruptible People” in the local Mossi language, as well as changing the country’s flag, which now bears a resemblance to the famous two- striped Vietcong flag, to break from the country’s colonial past.

Sankara additionally set up a parallel military force called the Revolutionary Defense Committees (akin to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps) to serve as a counterweight to the existing army as coup insurance and to promote Marxist-Leninist ideology. While Sankara himself was overthrown and murdered in a 1987 coup, he left a nation ripe with revolutionary trauma and easily exploitable by a faraway regime with a similar 1980s era history of revolution albeit theocratic in nature.

An additional rationale for Iran’s visit to Burkina Faso could be explained in what lies beneath the soil in the West African nation. In 2021, Burkina Faso ranked 12th in the world in gold mining production, and was positioned as the third largest producer in Africa behind Ghana and South Africa. That year, the country mined a total of 102.8 tons, constituting a veritable gold rush considering that a decade ago in 2013, the country mined around 42 tons.

With a potential economic agreement on the table, Iranian economic interests would have open access to Burkinabé-mined gold, providing the Islamic Republic with a much-needed commodity used as a hedge against inflation and other economic maladies plaguing the country. In addition to gold, West Africa in general including Burkina Faso’s neighbor Ghana have discovered vast lithium and manganese dioxide reserves critical for battery technology. While not developed, several geological surveys have identified Burkina Faso as having such reserves as well. Any potential economic agreement with Iran could potentially provide open access for Iranian companies to exploit these highly prized resources and evade international sanctions against Tehran.

Burkina Faso’s rapid expansion of its gold mining operations have also made that industry a target for Islamic terrorism dampening expectations of Western foreign investment. Spurred on by the 2014 fall of Blaise Compaoré’s nearly quarter of a century rule, the country has faced a serious security deterioration in the last decade.

In 2015, a Sunni Jihadist insurgency ignited and spread in the country, stemming from geopolitical spillover from its neighbors to the South, Mali and Niger. In January, 2016, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) attacked a hotel and restaurant frequented by Westerners and French military personnel, killing over 30 people. In 2017, AQIM attacked another hotel and a Turkish restaurant in Ouagadougou, killing 19 civilians.

That same year, the Saharan branch of AQIM merged with several other Jihadist groups to form Jama'at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin, and later attacked the French Embassy in Ouagadougou and the Burkinabé army headquarter in 2018. In response to these attacks, successive Burkinabé governments increased security cooperation with the French military, under the umbrella of the France’s Operation Barkhane, a counterinsurgency mission in the broader Sahel region.

However, after the most recent coup in September 2022 which installed Ibrahim Traoré, a young 34 year-old Burkinabé army captain as interim President, France withdrew its troops from Burkina Faso to satisfy the country’s new military leaders, assuaging an increasing internal French geopolitical fatigue, and giving in to Russian pressure (including from the now notorious Wagner Group) to kick all Western military presence out. In addition, there have been several indications since the end of 2022, that President Traoré intends to invite the Wagner Group in to assist his own military forces, despite U.S. efforts to dissuade him. Given the Russian paramilitary’s performance and subsequent slaughter in Ukraine, Iran, which recently echoed Russian talking points to kick French forces out, could in the longer term fill in as a security guarantor for the government of Burkina Faso.

In addition to a security role, Iran might also view itself as spiritual guarantor for Burkina Faso’s small but growing Shiite population. While around 63% of the country identifies as Muslim, very few reports exist on the percentage of Shiites within the country. A 2009 Pew report indicated that number to be around 1% percent. Despite this small number of observant Shiites, the Islamic Republic through official news outlets, has expressed a desire to foster that population and increase its ability to proselytize in the country. In June of 2022, a Burkinabé Shiite cleric named Ali Badra paid a visit to the Imam Reza holy shrine in Mashhad, Iran to meet with a mid-level government-affiliated Shiite cleric. In official government reports, Badra characterized Shia Islam in Burkina Faso as being under attack from foreign-backed “Wahhabis [that] are currently benefiting from television and radio networks and other forms of mass media, which are out of bounds to Shiites.” In Iranian media, officials, including Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, have also used religious nomenclature in referring to Jihadist groups within Burkina Faso. While political and economic interests in Burkina Faso seem to drive the Islamic Republic’s engagement, its religious desires could potentially follow suit.

Given Burkina Faso’s revolutionary history, its gold reserves, current instability, and small but significant Shiite population, the Islamic Republic has more than likely discovered an opportunity to fill the country’s vacuums in all these categories. While it remains unlikely that Iran will rush into the country with millions of dollars in economic aid and international development projects, what Iran intends to bring to the table in Burkina Faso would likely worsen regional security by providing Tehran with a foothold in West Africa, and assist the regime’s ability to evade Western sanctions. As a result, Washington’s efforts to contain Iranian malevolent activities around the world could find themselves another front to manage in Burkina Faso and in neighboring countries.

Nicholas Rodman served as a Professional Policy Staffer for the House Republican Study Committee, the largest political caucus in Congress, and currently serves as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government nor any current employer

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