US-Iran hostility recipe for instability in Horn of Africa

Sunday January 12 2020

Americans protest against US going to war with Iran. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP


A waning urge for direct interstate conflicts may have weakened the likelihood for a full-blown war, experts said of the tensions between the US and Iran.

But experts warned the Horn of Africa and the wider continent could still be roped in along ideological differences between Iran and US allies.

Since the 1990s, there has been no direct war between countries, even though proxy wars are routinely sponsored by states to settle certain scores.

“There will be proxy wars in the Middle East between US and Iran. They have done that in Lebanon in the past,” said Dr Abdiwahab Sheikh Abdisamad of the Southlink Consultants in Nairobi, suggesting it is often cheaper to fight through proxies than directly.

“Iran will target American military facilities using those proxy forces. Those proxy forces will also be fighting inside our region. The region will be divided politically; those siding with America and those siding with Iran,” he added, referring to the possible consequences. If that happens, oil prices could rise and Iran’s sanctions will hurt more possibilities for trade with them, he argued.

Last week, Washington sparked a debate after it assassinated Maj-Gen Qasem Soleimani, the Iranian commander of the elite Quds Forces as he left an airport in Baghdad, Iraq.


As expected, Iranian government led by Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed to revenge for what Tehran called a “criminal act.’’

But even as the world is worried that the incident would escalate to a war, and draw in allies on both sides, including some in East Africa, experts said the incident was an ongoing tiff between Tehran and Washington.

 “I don’t see us getting there.  US President Donald Trump doesn’t like war. He is a businessman. Iranians will make some noise but eventually some sober minds will rise,” argued Dr Kemoli Sagala, a governance and national security scholar in Nairobi.

Washington had argued Soleimani had directed the killings of more than 500 US servicemen in Iraq, mostly through Iran-affiliated militia groups.

According to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, there was an imminent danger from Iran, although Washington has not provided convincing evidence to support the claims.

Iranians reacted angrily to Soleimani’s killing, coming at a time the country was recovering from a decade of various economic sanctions pushed by the US, and which have squeezed Iranian economy to a point where Iranian traders could not for example, pay for tea bought from Kenya and forced Nairobi to cancel an oil-importation deal in 2012.

On Tuesday night, Iran defiantly fired rockets into US army bases inside Iraq. Washington claimed there had been no deaths. On Thursday, an Iraqi commander told state-owned Press TV Tehran “had restrained ourselves” suggesting there had been no intend to actually kill.

Dr Sagala said the US-Iran conflict will persist, especially since the US and Israel agenda is to stop Iran from making a nuclear bomb. He however, argued that Iran will strive to avoid a war because it is expensive.

The US too is careful about starting another war, especially because President Trump is being accused of using Iran to deflect the US public’s attention from his impeachment proceedings in Congress.

For Iran, argued, Robert Malley, the president and CEO of the International Crisis Group, the situation is more complex. “From its perspective, it cannot allow what it (Iran) views as a declaration of war to remain unanswered. It will respond and now must decide whether its reaction will be direct or through the array of proxies and allied forces Soleimani helped build; immediate or deferred; in Iraq or elsewhere — in the Gulf, Syria or beyond,” he wrote in a blog, referring to the proxy wars where Tehran and Washington have clashed recently.

But regional leaders in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iraq, China and Russia warned against any escalations, suggesting lack of interest in a wider conflict.

On a larger scale, Dr Mustafa Ali, chairman of the Horn International Institute for Strategic Studies, told The EastAfrican; there could be ideological warfare, pitting Sunnis and Shias.

“Sectarianisation of Shia-Sunni conflicts will increase, and politicised,” he warned.

“Such religionisation of politics will deepen suspicions, increase existing, and cause new conflicts.”

Those differences have already been exploited in the Yemeni conflict where Shia-majority Iran supports Houthi rebels while Sunni Saudi Arabia supports the troubled government.

If Iran and US pursue further escalation, Dr Ali warned the Horn of Africa will experience higher military activities and conflicts as states in the Gulf try to cover and protect their Eastern flanks located in the Red Sea and Horn of Africa.



Kenya is staying out of the US-Iranian tiff in what senior officials see as a way of keeping trouble at bay. Tension between the US and Iran escalated on Tuesday night after Tehran fired rockets on US military bases in Iraq. The officials spoke as Iranian diplomats in Nairobi dispelled fears their tension with the US could end up breaking relations with other countries, even though they warned that Iran will target all American military bases that have targeted Tehran’s interests.

The Iranians sought to clarify what they called targeted revenge against the US military, saying Iran was fighting back to “end the war”, not start one with other countries. Dr Tohid Afzali, the Iranian Embassy Head of the Political Department, argued that Tehran has beef with the US military and will target them.  And while he argued that the US military was the only entity they will target, he claimed his country will protect the “long history” of relations with Kenya.

“The Iranian retaliation and harsh revenge is its reserved right, according to the UN Charter, Chapter 51.