Sudan, Somalia and Djibouti cut ties with Iran, and Tehran laughs; why Africa needs to watch Saudi-Iran spat closely

Djibouti's strategic importance shouldn't be understated, and a risk of resurgence of Somali piracy could throw the whole area into turmoil

IRAN and Saudi Arabia’s recent aggression is already playing out in Africa; Djibouti and Somalia have become the latest diplomatic ties with Iran to show solidarity with Saudi Arabia.

Somalia’s government cut diplomatic ties and recalled its envoys after accusing the Iranian Embassy of establishing sects that pose a threat to national security in the Horn of Africa nation.

Iranian diplomats have been “directly involved in meddling with internal Somali affairs and have carried out measures that are a threat to our national security,” Somali Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke’s office said in a statement e- mailed Thursday from the capital, Mogadishu.

And on Wednesday, Djibouti Foreign Minister Mahamoud Ali Youssouf confirmed it had broken ties with Tehran, Reuters news agency reported. 

The two countries join Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain in entirely severing relations with Shi’a-led Iran. 

Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties with Iran on Sunday, less than a day after demonstrators in the Iranian capital stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran to protest Riyadh’s execution of a prominent Shiite cleric.

Iran is the world’s stronghold of Shi’a Islam, and Saudi Arabia, largely Sunni.

Sarcastic messages

Tiny Djibouti’s move is almost certainly more significant than Sudan’s. The small Horn of Africa nation, is home to the US’s only military base in Africa.

Iran has mocked Djibouti, which is mainly Sunni, sending out sarcastic messages over the “mighty” nation’s reported decision to do so. Iranian government spokesman Mohammad Baqer Nowbakht said sarcastically that Iran is not worried about Saudi Arabia cutting its ties with Tehran, “even if this move is backed by the great country of Djibouti”.

And in a tweet, the editor of the hardline Keyhan newspaper, Hoseyn Shariatmadari, said the Iranian Foreign Ministry has “given 24 hours to Djibouti’s diplomats to find their own country on a map”.

READ: Little Djibouti, the ‘Gate of Tears’; why it’s the hottest African address for big powers

It’s interesting that Iran would respond to Djibouti’s move, even though it made light of it, and not to much larger Sudan - but even that is telling. Despite Iran’s sarcasm, little Djibouti’s location at the narrow strait separating Africa from the Middle East is of great strategic importance. 

The US has its only full military base in Africa there; France, Japan, and - soon - China, will also have a military presence there. Iran has been trying to project its power in the area, by supporting the Houthi rebels in neighbouring Yemen.

The Houthi rebels fighting in north Yemen are Shi’a, supported by Iran – the global stronghold of Shi’a Islam. They are based in the rugged mountains of Yemen overlooking the Red Sea, and have now taken over most of the territory formerly known as North Yemen. 

What is at stake 

By supporting the Houthi rebels, should they ever prevail in the struggle for control in Yemen, Iran could one day control a combined 22% of the world’s oil trade by projecting power on two narrow chokepoints of global shipping lanes - the Strait of Hormuz off the Iranian coast, and Bab-el-Mandeb, which separates Djibouti from Yemen and is not far from Houthi-controlled territory.

The spiraling tension makes the prospect for a diplomatic breakthrough in Yemen now look even remoter. There’s also growing speculation that Djibouti could raise the fee for Iranian oil tankers going through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait - something Iran wouldn’t want as it is just getting back into the global oil market, with the recent lifting of sanctions against the country.

But there’s more. Last December, piracy in the Indian Ocean was declared essentially over, with the reduction in size of what international navies call the “High Risk Area” off the Somali coast.

Confidence

It signaled confidence from that the pirates were contained; last year, Somali pirate attacks were at just 1% the levels seen at their height in 2011.

The reduction of the High Risk Area was announced in October, and came into force as the year came to an end. It was the combined action of joint international navy patrols, armed escorts of ships transiting the area, and a raft of anti-piracy measures on ships themselves.

READ: How East African piracy ended, and lessons West Africa can learn to end crime on its waters

But this year, there is the risk of a resurgence of piracy off Somalia amid a spike in illegal fishing that is depriving local fishermen of a legitimate livelihood.

The One Earth Foundation reported in October 2015 that illegal foreign fleets made catches of 132,000 tonnes in the past year, more than three times that caught by local fishermen.

Even with the piracy threat largely gone, the “pirate” term continues to be used as a tool to “delegitimise and dehumanise Somalia’s fishermen”, argues maritime analyst Ahmed Ali, “to the extent where they can now be killed with impunity, by anyone, within Somalia’s territorial waters, with the perpetrators taking comfort in the thought that, so long as they declare to have killed ‘pirates, there will be no accountability and no questions asked.

Undermine security

Illegal fishing was partially blamed for the 2005-2012 piracy boom and there are growing concerns that it could once more undermine maritime security off Somalia, risk analysts PGI Intelligence states in its 2016 forecast on global economies.

The waters off Somalia saw several reported hijackings in 2015 targeting foreign trawlers, coming just after the High Risk Area was downgraded.

These included an Iranian fishing vessel seized with 15 crew off Eyl in northern Somalia in November, and a Thai fishing vessel around the same time. There were another two unsuccessful attempts that month.

Currently, the attacks appear to be aimed at protecting local fishing resources from foreign fleets, but pirate groups could broaden their target set if fishing is allowed to continue unchecked.

The piracy risk is elevated by deteriorating security onshore, relating to conflict between the regions of Puntland and Galmadug in northern Somalia, both of which are long-standing piracy hotspots.

A border dispute between the two regions has led to an upsurge in violence since November 2015 that could potentially incentivise clan elders to revert to piracy in the coming year to fund the fighting, the report states.

To further complicate the issue, Somalia is mostly Sunni, but Iranian Shi’a clerics have been trying to make inroads in Somalia, to much condemnation from Somalia’s Islamic scholars. Turkey - mostly Sunni - has also been deepening its involvement in Somalia, one of the first major global economies to do so after the collapse of Somalia’s central government in 1991. It makes Somalia a flashpoint to watch.

Still, a full resurgence of Somali pirate activity to levels seen between 2008 and 2012 is unlikely.

“Both the shipping industry and international governments have learnt too many difficult and important lessons from that time to allow Somali piracy to flourish again, even briefly,” says Tim Hart, senior maritime analyst at Control Risks, a security intelligence firm.

But opportunistic groups could take advantage of the uncertainty. As Saudi-Iran tensions rise, the last thing the region needs is a return to piracy in the Indian Ocean rim, however brief. That would cause deep pain for the global economy.


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