Maj. Gen. Soleimani’s Assassination Unprecedented, but Unlikely to Trigger a Large-Scale War

The First World War was triggered by an event remarkably similar to the US’s January 2020 assassination of Iranian Commander, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, but his death will not spark a Third World War as some have claimed. In the first incident, Bosnian-Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip, shot and killed heir-presumptive Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. This triggered an unprecedented war that claimed 17 million lives, injured 20 million, and displaced millions of others. The increasingly multi-polar conditions in international relations today may be similar to those of 1914. However, the competing power blocks that exist today are unwilling to risk going to war, particularly because the risks far outweigh the possible gains and advantages. Even Iran is unwilling to provoke a full-scale war with the US. Iran prefers to fight in the shadows instead as it looks for an opportunity to exert its ‘strategic revenge’ on the US or its allies.

Gavrilo’s Exploits and the First World War

Gavrilo Princip’s action first threw the diplomatic community into confusion, and then created a crisis, and an emergency. As communication was poor and rudimentary at the time compared to 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 the time. The reasons why Gavrilo’s action triggered the First World War include 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. With poor communications and diplomatic second-guessing, the powers hurtled down the path of war.

Today, many factors 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 satisfactorily. Neither the League of Nations nor the United Nations existed in 1914. Secondly, key countries in the Middle East such as Turkey, Egypt, and the Gulf monarchies like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar are now interested in diplomatic solutions to serious problems affecting the Middle East rather than war.

Allies, Multi-Polar World, and the Nuclear Problem

The US-Iran conflict’s latest escalation thrusts the world deeper into a nuclear problem. North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un is keenly watching Trump’s behavior and intentions, and the way he is dealing with Iran. Iran might now summarily thrash the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreements with the P5 + 1 (UNSC Permanent Members – US, UK, China, Russia, France + Germany). JCPOA sets the limits on Iran’s nuclear program guaranteeing, in a verifiable manner, that it does not produce nuclear weapons.

Although there are many ‘regionalized’ centers 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 defense. The US emerged out of the post-Cold War unipolar world stronger, compared to the previously bipolar world in which the 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 (UNSC) from attacking another country in an all-out war.  Russia took pre-emptive measures to protect Syria’s President Bashar Al Assad, and learned from Libya’s debacle with regard to the UNSC resolution 1973.

Impact on Africa and the Horn

US-Iran conflict has already harmed Kenya and the region. The unilateral sanctions imposed by the US are now demanded on other countries to do the same by the superpower. International trade is the 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 the 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. Gen. Soleimani.

The biggest challenge, though,  is that the countries in the region and Africa will face in the medium- to long-term is ideological competition, which could easily be weaponized.  Sectarianization of Shia-Sunni conflicts will increase, and become politicized. Such ‘religionization’ of politics will deepen suspicions, increase existing tensions, and cause new ones. 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. Also, the unsettled Sahel region will suffer more instability.

Further, the Yemeni conflict has historically been considered as part and parcel of the Horn of Africa conflict system. The Horn of Africa 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 possible infiltration by the Iranian-supported Houthi fighters. Hizbullah has been active in Lebanon, Syria, and lately, Iraq. The Horn of Africa conflict system might be seeing another fierce and unwelcome entrant – the ‘Yemeni Hizbullah’ in its conflict system. Although ideologically distant and apart from the militias in the Horn and terrorist groups, such an entry will nevertheless severely complicate the fight against terrorism in the region, especially al Shabab.

Mustafa Y. Ali, Ph.D. is the HORN Institute Chairman.

Excerpts from this article were run by The East African on January 11, 2020.

Photo: Mourners carry placards bearing the image of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani during his funeral on January 7, 2020. Soleimani was killed by a US airstrike in Baghdad, Iraq on January 3, 2020 (Photo Credit: Fair Observer).

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