World War threat is not real in current tension

Sunday January 12 2020

Muslims hold placards on January 12, 2020 to protest against the US military action for the killing of the top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. The assassination of Soleimani will not spark a Third World War as some have alluded to, Dr Mustafa Ali argues. PHOTO | AFP


The assassination of Iranian commander Gen Qasem Soleimani will not spark a Third World War as some have alluded to. It is true that the First World War was triggered by a remarkably similar event. A Bosnian-Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip, shot and killed heir-presumptive Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, triggering an unprecedented world war which claimed 17 million lives, injured 20 million and displaced millions.

Although the increasingly multi-polar conditions in international relations today may be similar to that of 1914, the competing power blocks today are unwilling to risk going to war. The risks of loss far outweigh the possible gains and advantages. Even Iran itself is unwilling to provoke a full-scale war with the US, and instead prefers to fight in the shadows, as it looks for an opportunity to exert what it calls strategic revenge on the US or its allies. Gavrilo’s action that triggered the First World War first and foremost threw the diplomatic community into confusion. It then created a crisis and an emergency. And because communication, then, was poor and rudimentary compared with today’s instantaneous multi-source, multi-form communications, the crisis became a complex emergency that could not be resolved by the tools available to diplomats at that time.

The reasons Gavrilo’s action triggered the First World War included misperceptions of intent among the then great powers (Britain, Germany, Russia, Italy, France, US and Belgium); miscalculations; fatalism; and clashing interests by these powers over their colonial exploits and spheres of influence. Today, there are many factors that will prevent, or even slow down countries from triggering a World War-scale event. These include the existence and presence of the United Nations and other regional inter-governmental institutions where serious disagreements are bound to be addressed, albeit not fully. There was neither the League of Nations nor the United Nations in 1914. Secondly, key countries in the Middle East like Turkey, Egypt and the Gulf monarchies such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar are now interested in diplomatic solutions to serious problems affecting the Middle East.

However, the US-Iran conflict’s latest escalation thrusts the world deeper into a nuclear problem. North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un is keenly watching President Trump’s behaviour and intentions in the way it deals with Iran. Iran could as well summarily thrash the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreements with the P5 + 1 (UNSC Permanent Members — US, UK, China, Russia, France and Germany). JCPOA set the limits on Iran’s nuclear programme guaranteeing in a verifiable manner, that it does not produce nuclear weapons.

Although there are many regionalised centres of power today, with China, Russia, European Union, Britain and others staking their claims in their respective spheres of influence; power — particularly military power, is still controlled by the US given its technological advancements and expenditure on defence. The US emerged out of the post-cold war unipolar world stronger, compared with the previous bipolar world in which former Soviet Union competed with it. So, it is the US that would want to initiate a major war with Iran. And this would be a major miscalculation on the part of the US, because its actions would severely harm its interests and allies in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

Because Russia, and to some extent China, are Iran’s allies; they may vigorously challenge the US at the United Nations Security Council from attacking another country in an all-out war.


US-Iran Conflict has already harmed Kenya and the region. The unilateral sanctions imposed by the US is now demanded on other countries to do the same by the superpower. International Trade is first to suffer. Kenya has had to cancel a deal of importing 80,000 barrels of Iranian oil at concessionary rates. Kenya exports tea and other products to Iran. Kenya and many African countries have significant trading partners in the Middle East, particularly the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which will be negatively affected in case of another all-out war in the region. Already, the price of oil has sharply increased in the last few days after the assassination of Maj-General Soleimani.

The biggest challenge, though, countries in the region and Africa will face in the medium to long term is ideological competition, which could easily be weaponised. Sectarianisation of Shia-Sunni conflicts will increase, and politicised. Such religionisation of politics will deepen suspicions, increase existing, and cause new, conflicts. In Nigeria for example, the followers of Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky of the Shia-based Islamic Movement in Nigeria have clashed with the Nigerian State security agents for a while now, thus slowing down the fight against Boko Haram and terrorism. The unsettled Sahel region will suffer more instability. Yemeni conflict has historically been considered as part and parcel of the Horn of Africa conflict system. The Horn will experience significantly 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 regions from a possible infiltration by the Iranian-supported Houthi fighters.

Dr Mustafa Y. Ali is the Chairman of the Horn International Institute for Strategic Studies.