Passport

This Tiny African Nation Just Cut Ties With Tehran. It Also Used to Be an Iranian Trading Post.

Comoros's rich yet little-known historical links with Iran haven't stopped it from joining Saudi Arabia's campaign to isolate Tehran.

A Comoran woman walks along the waterfront in Moroni on February 21, 2015 on the eve of the second round of the legislative elections. The second phase of the Comoros legislative election will be a face-off between the party of President Ikililou Dhoinine and his predecessor Ahmed Abdallah Sambi.   AFP PHOTO / MARCO LONGARI        (Photo credit should read MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images)
A Comoran woman walks along the waterfront in Moroni on February 21, 2015 on the eve of the second round of the legislative elections. The second phase of the Comoros legislative election will be a face-off between the party of President Ikililou Dhoinine and his predecessor Ahmed Abdallah Sambi. AFP PHOTO / MARCO LONGARI (Photo credit should read MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images)

When Djibouti announced last week it was cutting ties with Tehran amid Saudi Arabia’s escalating diplomatic showdown with Iran, Iranian officials mocked the African nation for its tiny size and lack of military muscle. But when the even tinier island nation of Comoros announced it was doing the same, some officials in Tehran might have been puzzled over where to find the country on a map.

On Jan. 4, Comoros officials recalled their envoy to Tehran. On Wednesday, the three-island nation of only 781,000 people joined Somalia and Sudan, which, like Djibouti, have severed diplomatic ties with Iran, in a show of solidarity with Riyadh. All four African countries are majority Sunni, belong to the Arab League, and enjoy significant investment and aid from oil-rich Saudi Arabia.

But unlike the others, Comoros, which is wedged between Madagascar and the Mozambican coast, boasts a little-known historical relationship with Iran.

Some islanders claim that travelers from Iran arrived in Comoros as early as the 11th century. Historians have determined that Iranians first arrived in the 14th and 15th centuries. These settlers are known as Shirazi Arabs because they were of Arab descent but came from the Persian city of Shiraz. Iran still counts a few million Arabs among its population today.

The Shirazi Arabs had a transformational impact on the islands’ development. They spurred economic and cultural growth by spreading Sunni Islam, the Persian calendar, fruit cultivation, and stone architecture.

Scholars believe only a small number of Shirazi merchants actually immigrated to Comoros. But they appear in local myths, and their presence turned the islands into a hub of regional trade.

By the 16th century, Comoros became a transit point for Eastern African products, including spices and slaves heading to the Middle East, as well as Middle Eastern products like opium or cotton cloth headed to Africa.

The influence of Iranian traders waned, however, as Europe emerged from the medieval period and began to replace Islamic powers as the dominant colonial force in Africa. This process culminated in the French conquest of Comoros in 1866, and didn’t end until three of the four islands declared independence in 1975. The fourth, Mayotte, opted to remain under French territorial control.

In more recent history, Iran has funded clinics and vocational schools in Comoros, and cultivated cordial relations with the island nation. But as Comoros’s decision to cut ties with Tehran goes to show, its Arab linguistic and ethnic identities have overshadowed its Persian civilizational one.

MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images

Henry Johnson is a fellow at Foreign Policy. He graduated from Claremont McKenna College with a degree in history and previously wrote for LobeLog. Twitter: @HenryJohnsoon

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola