The Horn between a rock and a hard place
In what could be considered as an unforeseen incident, the United States assassinated General Qassem Soleimani, Commander of Iranian Quds Force, a division primarily responsible for extraterritorial military and clandestine operations. The assassination sent shockwaves in the region and beyond leading to threats and counter threats by both the US and Iran.
According to political analysts, in due course, the geopolitical dynamics and its effects, which extends all the way to the Horn of Africa, could have dire implications as tensions continue to rise.
It all started after Soleimani, a 62-year-old general, who was regarded as the second most powerful figure in Iran after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was killed in a targeted US drone strike on January 3, 2020 in Baghdad, Iraq.
The overnight attack, authorized by President Donald Trump, marked a dramatic escalation in a “shadow war” in the Middle East between Iran and the United States and its allies, principally Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Top Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an adviser to Soleimani, was also killed in the attack.
Soleimani, also known as “The Shadow Commander” was widely popular among Iranians. His supporters viewed him as a "selfless hero fighting Iran's enemies.” On the other side of the globe, Soleimani was personally sanctioned by the United Nations and the European Union, and was designated as a terrorist by the United States.
According to analysts, his death marks a significant political and strategic setback for the Islamic Republic which in turn alters the geopolitical dynamics of the gulf region and the Horn of Africa.
The Gulf and the Horn
“Centuries of shared faith and commerce have placed the Gulf and the Horn among the world’s most interdependent regions. Gulf powers view the region bordering Africa’s Red Sea and Gulf of Aden as their natural sphere of influence,” Rashid Abdi Former Project Director for the Horn of Africa at the International Crisis Group (ICG), wrote in an article published by the ICG in 2017.
He further says that today’s scramble for influence is driven by both geo-economic and geo-security imperatives: securing a post-oil future and prepositioning for a potential future conflict with Iran.
According to Asteris Huliaras and Sophia Kalantzakos, in their article published in the journal of the Middle East Policy Council, within the last few years, Gulf States have been considered by many observers as "rising" powers in the Horn of Africa. This has been especially pronounced with respect to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The formation of new military alliances and the strengthening of economic ties have been offered as "proof" of their expanding influence.
The Red Sea strait of Bab el Mandeb, located between Yemen and the Horn of African countries of Djibouti and Eritrea is one of the areas that might be on the receiving end of rising escalations between United States and Iran.
For instance, in Yemen, the United States has been backing its ally Saudi Arabia against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
Strategic alliances and influences
The withdrawal of superpowers from the Horn of Africa after the end of the Cold War gave more freedom of maneuver to the countries of the region. In that regard, much of the Gulf’s interest in the Horn is related to competition with Iran.
“The election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005 led to increased Iranian activity in the Horn of Africa that included an alliance with Eritrea, various agreements with Djibouti, and the further strengthening of relations with Sudan. By the early 2010s, as Iran increased its influence in Iraq and Syria, Saudi Arabia and the UAE were forced to re-examine their foreign and security policies. Their disquiet over Iranian hegemonic ambitions was further heightened in July 2015 with the nuclear agreement between Iran and the West. Saudi and UAE leaders decided to increase military and political coordination and developed a strategy to counter what they perceived as Iranian "expansionism" in the wider region,” Huliaras and Kalantzakos wrote.
True to form, Gulf States see strategic risks in leaving the Horn to potential adversaries. The presence of the Iranian-backed Houthis at the vital Bab El Mandeb choke-point at the southern end of the Red Sea provided another significant incentive for both Saudi Arabia and the UAE to establish their presence on both sides of the strait to maintain maritime security.
Another manifestation of the influence of Gulf States and their growing diplomatic heft, was the central role the UAE and Saudi Arabia played in brokering the historic peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea in July 2018. Adding to its already strong ties to Eritrea, Emirati diplomats also gradually developed closer relations with Ethiopia – largely through deployment of much-needed investment and financial opportunities.
The risks and how to bypass them
The recent tensions is seen by analysts as a scenario that could turn for the worst.
“The US considered the killing as a deterrent to further Iranian attacks but fired back. Iran has responded to the Soleimani killing directly and no one will stop her from supporting proxy wars elsewhere in the Middle East and the Red Sea region,” Leulseged Girma, a researcher on geopolitics at the Institute for Strategic Affairs, told The Reporter.
Leulseged further said that the truce in Yemen between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia is now at risk and Palestinians have expressed their anger over the death of Soleimani. According to him, this shows that organizations such as Hamas can be involved against the Sunni Arab States in the region. Other Shiite forces such as Hezbollah will appear fiercely in the fight against the Sunnis in the region, he added.
Iran has already threatened to pound Saudi Arabia and Israel if the US responds to the Iranian attack of military bases in Iraq.
“The clash will continue if President Donald Trump orders retaliation as he has iterated last week. Trump is ready to retaliate disproportionately if Iran targets any of the US persons or military facilities. Trump had already threatened to strike 52 Iranian sites. If he persists with his idea of attacking Iran, Iran will also attack other states in the Middle East and its Shiite backers will also launch attacks against the US allies and interests,” Leulseged said.
And the thing that complicates things even further is that the altercation includes the Red Sea strait where most of the world’s goods are being transported.
“Standing against Iran, some countries of the Horn of Africa had also participated in the Yemen civil war against the Houthi rebels. Any kind of escalation of war in Yemen will hurt the import-export of the HoA countries including Ethiopia,” Leulseged said.
This may re-drag the countries into the war and it may have a devastating effect; however, as a guiding principle, Ethiopia, the most populous country in the Horn of Africa, remains to be neutral when it comes to dealing with countries in the Middle East.
“Ethiopia has remained neutral and non-partisan. The country, as usual, may call upon all conflicting parties to employ political dialogue to end the impasse,” Leulseged said.