Israel FM flies into Kenya after Iran president Raisi's 'successful' Africa visit
Just days after Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi wrapped up a three-nation tour of Africa, Israel's Foreign Minister Eli Cohen flew into the Kenyan capital on Sunday amid concerns about Tehran's recent outreach.
Cohen attended an African Union biannual coordination meeting in Nairobi, where he met with the head of an "unnamed" African country that does not currently share relations with Israel, The Times of Israel reported.
The Israeli foreign minister's office acknowledged that the visit came after Tehran's "attempt to expand its activities of the continent" of Africa and Israel's bid to find new partners.
Cohen stressed his trip was of "regional and strategic importance against the background of Iran’s attempts to expand its influence on the continent".
"Kenya’s regional position makes it a key partner of Israel in the East African region. Kenya’s membership on the board of the [UN’s] International Atomic Energy Agency allows it to influence the international supervision of Iranian violations," he added.
It came after Raisi ended a three-day visit to Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe on Thursday, signing several agreements with African states including pledges by Tehran for greater investments and sharing scientific expertise.
It was the first time an Iranian president had visited the African continent since 2013 when hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sought to overcome sanctions on Tehran with visits to Niger, Benin and Ghana.
Raisi's rare overseas visit follows five years of international isolation for Iran after the US withdrew from a nuclear agreement with it in 2018 and slapped sanctions, effectively freezing Tehran out of international trade.
With the US still not budging on sanctions, Tehran remains desperate for international trade partners with Raisi visiting South America last month and seeking new commercial opportunities.
Iran has doubled its trade with African nations since Raisi became president in August 2021, according to Tehran, partly in a bid to find enough food for its growing 88 million population. Other Gulf states are also seeking to bolster food security by buying up land in Africa and ramping up trade.
On Thursday, Tehran and Harare inked 12 agreements, including the establishment of a joint tractor factory in Zimbabwe, regarding cooperation in energy, science, business, and most critically, agriculture.
Iran's deputy Agriculture Minister Alireza Paymanpak admitted that Tehran is looking to Africa to meet its protein needs with Kenya agreeing to export 200,000 tonnes of beef to Iran following the Raisi visit.
The opposition news site Iran International claimed that the chief aim of the Africa tour was to exchange petrochemicals, plentiful in Iran, for food as inflation in Iran reaches alarming rates, particularly where meat prices are concerned.
Arash Azizi, a PhD candidate at New York University and author of The Shadow Commander: Soleimani, the US, and Iran's Global Ambitions, said these conditions likely motivated Raisi to visit Africa.
"Battered by sanctions, Iran is desperate to find partners to import commodities such as beef, especially if it can get away with paying for it not with hard currency but with oil exports," he told The New Arab.
"Currently, food prices in Iran are high in an unprecedented way and beef has become something of a luxury for many Iranians. Kenya seems to be a good partner since it has a very large cattle industry and also a nascent oil industry that started only in the past decade or so."
Kenya is also a major exporter of tea to Iran and the Raisi visit could guarantee a new market for other foodstuffs.
"This could include edible fruits and fish which are currently exported but not on huge volumes," said Azizi.
"In turn, Iran hopes to export medicine, including cancer medicine, to Kenya but it remains to be seen whether this can be a considerable export or not."
Even before Raisi's visit, Israel was seeking to bolster ties with African nations and reach out to those it has no diplomatic relations with.
While in Nairobi, Cohen praised Kenyan President William Ruto and Foreign Minister Alfred Mutua for "their efforts to promote Israel’s position on the continent and to open doors for the State of Israel in countries on the continent with which we do not yet have diplomatic relations".
The Israeli foreign minister's office also noted that Cohen and several unnamed African countries "discussed strengthening the ties between Israel and Kenya and the African continent and expanding the circle of peace with other African countries".
Azizi said that Iran's presence in Africa is a cause of alarm, particularly with the two countries engaged in a shadow war with the continent a major battleground.
Both countries have a major intelligence presence in and around Eritrea, while Iran's embassy in Senegal was used as a hub for intelligence gathering in the continent, he added.
"Now the Israelis have invested much in their relations with Senegal to prevent that in the future. It has also tried to use its relations with Sudan in this light before Khartoum cut relations as part of the Iran-Saudi spat," he said.
He noted that Israel's former national security advisor Meir Ben Shabat recently wrote a piece in Israel Hayom warning about Raisi's visit to Africa.
"Israelis take this very seriously and they have been trying hard to expand their presence in Africa which was also seen in the campaign to get them observer status in the African Union," he added.
Israel has sought to establish ties with African countries that it currently has no relations with, the foreign ministry told Ynet, including Niger, Mali and Mauritania. This follows controversial normalisation agreements with several Arab countries, including African nations Morocco and Sudan.
Malawi announced in 2020 it would be the first African nation to open an embassy in Jerusalem, which most countries do not recognise as the capital of Israel views.
South African lawmakers meanwhile showed solidarity with Palestinians this year, by voting to downgrade their country's diplomatic presence in Israel.