Uranium in the Sahel: As the West steps out, Iran steps in

The US and French withdrawal from the Sahel lets the Russians, Chinese, and Iranians in. Tehran, in particular, will be keen to buy Niger’s uranium, despite this being a red line for Washington.

Two soldiers raise the flags of Niger and the United States during a ceremony in Agadez in April 2018.
Two soldiers raise the flags of Niger and the United States during a ceremony in Agadez in April 2018.

Uranium in the Sahel: As the West steps out, Iran steps in

After a string of military coups in the African Sahel, Western powers have been withdrawing their presence at a rate of knots. This has left the door open not just for jihadists of different stripes but for enemy states, too.

Coup leaders have tended to turn to Russia’s Wagner Group for help securing national assets like oil fields and uranium mines. However, interest of late seems to be coming from further afield—namely Iran.

Given that Iran is actively pursuing a nuclear weapon, this has stoked concern in Washington over uranium supplies from countries like Niger.

The US and former colonial power France had, until recently, been providing security in one of the world’s biggest uranium-exporting countries. However, last year, relations broke down, and the French and Americans left.

American withdrawal

The Americans didn't get along with Niger’s new Russia-leaning overlords. However, things deteriorated dramatically during Ramadan, when the National Military Council in Niamey terminated a 2012 security agreement with Washington.

Around 1,100 US Marines were expelled, and a $110mn US military base in northern Niger closed. Niger’s new leaders did not explain the abrupt decision.

This facility—equipped with advanced technology and MQ-9 Force drones, monitored terrorist groups active in West Africa and the Sahel—such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS).

Niger recently ended a security agreement with the US. Around 1,100 Marines were expelled, and a $110mn US military base closed.

Col. Abderrahmane Amadou, in a statement on state TV, accused Washington of restricting Niger's freedom to select its strategic and security partners. It seems he wants to be free to choose Moscow or Tehran.

Diplomats suspected the US expulsion was coming after last month's high-level US delegation visit to Niamey. This was led by Molly Phee, the US's assistant secretary of state for African affairs, and Gen. Michael Langley, a commander of US forces in Africa.

Having made the trip, they met only Prime Minister Ali Al-Amin Zein, not the head of the Military Council, Gen. Abdul Rahman Al-Tiyani.

This speaks volumes.

Leaving red lines

Anneliese Bernard, a former US State Department official specialising in African affairs, said this was all part of a wider picture.

"The developments in Niger and the Sahel region cannot be viewed in isolation from our deteriorating relations in the Middle East and elsewhere, as they significantly affect West African countries," she said.

The New York Times reported that Niger had been told in no uncertain terms by the US that Washington would not permit Iran to access Niger's uranium.

The talks, described as tense, covered any form of nuclear supply cooperation between Tehran and Niamey.

Demonstrators in the capital Niamey call for the departure of US forces from Niger on April 13, 2024.

This includes Niger's existing stockpile of uranium, which makes up around 5% of global supplies.

According to local reports, a US truck carrying personal and military items was later seized as it headed to the Ivory Coast just days after Niger's National Council suspended the military agreement with the US.

French folly

It is not just Washington that is upset with the Nigerien military junta. Paris had a big stake in Niger, too. France gets 70% of its electricity from nuclear power, and Niger's mines provide 20% of its required uranium.

Following the diplomatic crisis between Paris and Niger, however, the French company Orano ceased uranium extraction in the country. It has majority shares in three mines: Aïr, Akokan, and Imouraren.

French and American troops made up the largest Western contingent in the Sahel. These troops were stationed there to protect against the threat of terrorism.

French soldiers have now left military bases in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, which monitored the Sahel's extremist groups. German and Danish troops are also out. The US Marines were among the last to leave.

Washington and Paris once regarded Niamey as the last stronghold against terrorism in a region marred by security turbulence and socio-economic decline.

French soldiers have now left military bases in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. German and Danish troops are also out. 

Filling the void

For the European Union, Russia's deployment of paramilitaries from the Wagner mercenary group risks further destabilising the Sahel, which in turn poses a threat to European security.

Local military sources say the US thinks that Niger's new regime has been talking to Russia and Iran about military cooperation and uranium supply. Washington sees this as a threat and has threatened sanctions.

Amadou denied any secret deals with Iran over uranium, calling them "lies" and accusing the US of arrogance and condescension.

But Western intelligence sources say they know about recent contacts between Niger's military junta and Iranian officials.

For Washington, which has spent years seeking to undermine Iran's nuclear programme, Iranian access to Niger's uranium would be a red line.

Niger is a big player in a big market. In 2023, global uranium production reached 60.3 kilotons and is projected to increase by 11.7% in 2024 (production could reach 77 kilotons by 2030).

In its latest report, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said Iran had increased its capability to enrich uranium enrichment to 60%, meaning that supply will now be of interest.

Iranian allure

Tehran uses an anti-colonial, anti-imperialist narrative in its dealings with African nations, capitalising on regional discontent with Western powers, ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, and the plight of Palestinians in Gaza.

The Stimson Centre, a US think tank, has analysed rhetoric from Iran's President Ibrahim Raisi during his tours of sub-Saharan Africa.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi (C) inspects the guard of honour during his official visit at the State House in Entebbe, Uganda, on July 12, 2023

He has lauded resistance against colonialism in visits to Uganda, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Algeria, and earlier to Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba, which were aligned with the anti-US bloc during the Cold War.

The withdrawal has offered Iran an opportunity to build alliances, secure a supply of uranium, and advocate for a new political order for the nations of the global south.

Iran has a habit of exploiting failing or fragile states, having done so in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon. It appears to be taking this strategy to the Sahel.

The Iranians could easily succeed. This is a poor region that is currently divided by disputes with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Union of Sahel States, comprising Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso.

Since 2021, the Union countries have all had military coups. Subsequently, they have all developed strong ties with Russia and China, dispensing with their French and American allegiances in the process.

A more subtle approach

Iran's tactics are different by necessity. It has to operate more subtly, a Shiite power in a predominantly Sunni area, as it aims to avoid a backlash from jihadist groups.

European diplomats with experience on the African continent say Sunni influence "has been strong in sub-Saharan Africa for centuries", making it challenging for Iran to make inroads.

Tehran hopes that its anti-colonial chorus line will resonate with local populations who feel economically exploited and politically marginalised after decades of collusion between their rulers and the West.

Its strategy has had some early success. Tehran signed cooperation agreements with Burkina Faso in energy, construction, and universities in October last year.

Likewise, universities and training institutes focused on scientific research and technology are opening in Mali, Iran. These early deals suggest that rather than offer guns or money, Iran will offer education.

The choice suggests a long-term interest, but analysts suspect it may not be enough, partly because setting up universities is not cheap.

The US withdrawal has offered Iran an opportunity to build alliances, secure a supply of uranium, and advocate for a new political order.

Terry Coville, an economist at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS), says the Iranians "have inked dozens of agreements" but doubts whether any will come to anything.

"None are likely to materialise because Tehran lacks the necessary funds to implement these programmes in the Sahel and does not fully understand the local population dynamics."

Ankara and Rabat

Niger is keeping its options open. It is also keeping an open mind. Specifically, two Muslim countries have been mentioned as potential partners: one in North Africa and the other in the Middle East.

"We have longstanding historical relations with Turkey and Morocco that date back to distant eras," a government source in Niger told French media.

"Turkey is increasingly influential in Africa and possesses significant military capabilities, while Morocco has maintained a cultural presence and robust economic ties with us since our independence."

Whatever allegiances emerge, the Sahel's political shift is has unearthed a red line from the world's superpower and an open door to its nemesis.

So far, the major beneficiaries of this Sahel pivot are Russian mercenaries and Chinese construction firms. Iranian scientists will hope to join them.

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