During the Cold War, the Horn of Africa emerged as arguably the most highly penetrated regional subsystem in the world.1 Not only the two superpowers, but Middle Eastern regional powers intervened in interstate and intrastate conflicts there.2 Three geostrategic factors drew foreign powers to the Horn of Africa: 1) its location across the Red Sea from the oil-rich Arabian Peninsula; 2) an almost 2,500-mile coastline (stretching from Eritrea’s border with Sudan in the north to Somalia’s border with Kenya in the south) lying astride the Red Sea and the South African Cape maritime routes; and 3) Ethiopia’s control over the headwaters of the Blue Nile, which account for 90 percent of the waters of the Nile River system.
The end of the Cold War greatly diminished the strategic value of the Horn of Africa in the eyes of Washington and Moscow. The Soviet Union disengaged from the Horn completely, while the United States drastically reduced military assistance to the region. Washington began to re-engage strategically in the Horn following the August 7, 1998, bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, but this failed to prevent the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen’s harbor at Aden. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the United States adopted a much more aggressive counterterrorism policy in the Horn of Africa. However, Washington’s handling of conflicts in the Horn in the context of the U.S. global war on terrorism (GWOT) produced an unintended result: it provided Iran with an opportunity to increase its political and military influence in the region by forming a strategic alliance with Eritrea.
On the surface, an Eritrean-Iranian alliance seems an unlikely partnership — a political and ideological mismatch between the Islamic Republic and a “devoutly” secular Eritrean regime. Since gaining independence in 1993, Eritrea has been ruled by a secular, Christian-dominated political party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ). With a population almost evenly split between Christians and Muslims and divided along nine ethnic lines, the PFDJ has prohibited the formation of political parties based on religion or ethnicity. Consequently, Eritrea has opposed governments and political movements espousing and seeking to export or impose an Islamist agenda in the region.
Paradoxically, Eritrea’s radical nationalism has produced a “pragmatic, self-serving and equally hypocritical” foreign policy, free of ideological constraints; Asmara would ally with any government or non-state actor, if only temporarily, in pursuit of Eritrean national interests.3 This radical nationalism underlies a self-righteous defiance that has led Eritrea over the past two decades into direct or proxy conflicts with Sudan, Yemen, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Somalia. Iran has also demonstrated a certain political pragmatism in the conduct of foreign policy by not applying a strict ideological litmus test, as demonstrated by its three-decade alliance with Syria’s secular regime. The pragmatic strategic alliance between Eritrea and Iran stems from three developments: 1) the linkage that emerged at the beginning of the twenty-first century between the Somali irredentist threat in the Horn of Africa and the unresolved Eritrea-Ethiopia border conflict; 2) Eritrea’s running afoul of U.S. counterterrorism/GWOT policy in Somalia; and 3) the unintended consequence of isolating Eritrea diplomatically, which allowed Iran to open a southern/western strategic flank against Israel and Saudi Arabia.
A TALE OF TWO CONFLICTS
Since the beginning of the 1960s, two conflicts have shaped the domestic and international politics of the Horn of Africa: the Ethiopia-Somalia conflict and the Eritrea-Ethiopia conflict that broke into two phases: 1961-91 and 1998-present.4 These conflicts revolve around the control of contested territory that would alter international frontiers in post-colonial Africa. Border adjustments, except by mutual political agreement, pose a particularly sensitive issue for Africa, owing to most states’ highly fragmented demographic composition. To keep the genie in the bottle, when the Organization of African Unity (OAU) — now the African Union (AU) — was created in 1963, member states, including Ethiopia and Somalia, signed the OAU Charter recognizing the inviolability of Africa’s colonially drawn borders.
Addis Ababa finds itself at the center of the political storm in the Horn of Africa, owing to Ethiopia’s expansionistic imperialist past. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Ethiopia’s ruling Christian-Amharic elite conquered areas inhabited by Muslims and ethnic groups such as the Oromos and Somalis. Then a December 1952 UN-sponsored federation plan allowed Ethiopia to acquire control over the former Italian colony of Eritrea. Thus, despite the political cover provided by the OAU Charter, Addis Ababa was forced to confront the internal “nationalities” question resulting from its own past as an African colonial power.
The Somali nationalities question in Ethiopia revolves around a large tract of territory located in southeastern Ethiopia (the Ogaden) that is inhabited by ethnic Somalis. When the Republic of Somalia was formed in July 1960 with the merger of British Somaliland and Italian Somali-land, Ethiopia sought to isolate Somalia diplomatically and militarily. Somalia’s national flag — a white five-pointed star on a blue field that symbolically represents each of the five areas in the Horn of Africa where ethnic Somalis live — serves as a constant reminder of Mogadishu’s irredentist “greater Somaliland” quest in the Horn that threatens not only Ethiopia, but Kenya and Djibouti as well. Consequently, following independence, Mogadishu’s pursuit of reunification of the Somali-inhabited areas of the Horn destabilized the region and also transformed the Ethiopia-Somalia conflict into a zero-sum game in which foreign powers were forced to choose sides.
Perhaps the most revealing example of the zero-sum nature of the Ethiopia-Somalia conflict occurred during the 1977-78 Ogaden War.5 While the United States and Ethiopia maintained a military relationship based upon a 25-year arms-for-bases defense agreement signed in May 1953, the Soviet Union had signed an arms deal with Somalia in 1963. In the spring of 1977, however, Addis Ababa realigned with Moscow and terminated Ethiopia’s security relationship with the United States (already under suspension by Washington). Then, in the summer of 1977, Somalia invaded the Ogaden, forcing Moscow to choose sides between two of its arms clients. As an indicator of the pro-Ethiopia tilt underlying past, present and future U.S. and Russian policy in the Horn of Africa, Moscow decisively intervened in the war on the side of Ethiopia to defeat Somalia (airlifting some $1 billion worth of weapons and more than 10,000 Cuban troops). Despite the pleas of U.S. Middle East allies (Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the shah of Iran), Washington refused to arm Somalia to counter Soviet military intervention. The United States only agreed to sign, with reservations, a “defensive” arms-for-access agreement with Mogadishu in August 1980 in response to the dramatic events of 1979 — the overthrow of the shah, the onset of the Iranian hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
By the end of the 1980s, the Ethiopia-Somalia conflict had effectively ended by default. Somalia was consumed by civil war, and Siad Barre’s besieged Somali regime was forced to reach an agreement with Addis Ababa to cease their proxy war of supporting anti-government insurgents. The modus vivendi between Addis Ababa and Mogadishu became a moot point when Siad Barre was overthrown in January 1991 and Somalia disintegrated politically along clan and sub-clan lines. Following the failure of the U.S. humanitarian/peacekeeping/nation-building military intervention in 1992-94, Somalia fell off Washington’s radar screen.6 During the 1990s, the United States remained aloof from the numerous attempts by the international community to mediate and bring about political reconciliation in Somalia. These efforts foundered on Somali clan politics and the rampant “warlordism” in Mogadishu.7
The 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States and the Bush administration’s declaration of the GWOT presented a political dilemma in the Horn of Africa. Continuing political chaos in Somalia and the absence of a unified central government offered al-Qaeda and other Islamic extremists fleeing Afghanistan after the defeat of the Taliban in December 2001 a potential safe haven to plan and recruit for future operations. Unifying Somalia under a strong central government, however, might revitalize Mogadishu’s pan-Somali irredentist agenda in the Horn. But one Horn country that was not a target of Somali irredentism, Eritrea, would exploit its political “immunity” to press its political/territorial agenda vis-à-vis Ethiopia.
In December 1952, with Washington’s backing (to maintain access to Kagnew Station, a strategic communications facility located outside of Asmara, Eritrea), the United Nations approved a 10-year federation plan between Ethiopia and Eritrea.8 The terms called for Addis Ababa to control the foreign affairs of the former Italian colony until 1962, when the Eritreans would be allowed to exercise self-determination over their future. By the autumn of 1961, realizing that Addis Ababa planned to deny independence and annex their country, the Eritreans launched what would become a 30-year war (1961-91) of national liberation. By the mid-1960s, the Eritrean war had become internationalized — a southerly extension of the Arab-Israeli conflict as Israel supported Ethiopia to prevent the Red Sea from becoming an “Arab lake” and various Arab countries supported the Eritreans, assuming that an independent Eritrea would adopt a pro-Arab foreign policy.9 Ultimately, the Eritreans emerged victorious. After inflicting numerous defeats on the Ethiopian army, in May 1991, the Soviet-backed regime (since 1977) of Mengistu Haile Mariam collapsed, paving the way for Eritrea to declare independence in May 1993.
Eritrea’s foreign-policy pragmatism quickly surfaced, to the dismay of some Arab supporters of the rebellion. Rather than adopting an anti-Israel foreign policy and joining the Arab League, Asmara forged close ties with the United States and Israel as well as Ethiopia, though Asmara would eventually attain observer status in the Arab League. During the 1990s, Eritrea played a front-line role in containing the National Islamic Front (NIF) military government in Sudan that had come to power in June 1989.10 Sudan would be placed on the U.S. State Department’s State Sponsor of Terrorism List (SSTL) in August 1993. For its own reasons, in 1994, Asmara broke off diplomatic relations with Khartoum and engaged in a proxy war with Sudan by supporting Sudanese opposition forces, owing to Khartoum’s support for the Eritrean Islamic Jihad Movement (EIJM). In light of Iran’s backing of Sudan and Israel’s support for Eritrea, Asmara and Teheran refrained from establishing formal diplomatic relations.
In May 1998, the post-Cold War tranquility between Eritrea and Ethiopia ended in a bloody, two-year war (1998-2000). Asmara initiated it, seeking to assert control over the village of Badme, which had remained under Ethiopian control following Eritrea’s independence in 1993.11 What began as a small border clash escalated into a full-scale war in which more than 70,000 people were killed and hundreds of thousands were displaced from their homes. In June 2000, Asmara and Addis Ababa signed a Cessation of Hostilities Agreement and the following December signed the Algiers Accord, officially ending the war. Both parties agreed to abide by a “final and binding” decision to be issued by the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) delineating their 600-mile border. Based on old maps, in April 2002, the EEBC issued its decision: Babme as well as other disputed border areas belonged to Eritrea. In 2003, Ethiopia rejected the EEBC decision as “inconsistent with international law” and demanded that new negotiations be held to minimize the economic and physical disruption along the border. Eritrea insisted that the border issue was legally and politically closed and that the United Nations and the United States should press Addis Ababa to implement the EEBC decision. Unfortunately for Eritrea, the United Nations and the United States refused to act against Ethiopia.
Eritrea essentially created a linkage between these two conflicts in the Horn that in the past had been treated as separate issues. Militarily, Eritrea cannot defeat Ethiopia. Politically, Washington views Ethiopia as the key player in the Horn to lead the GWOT in the region; therefore, it wishes to avoid antagonizing Addis Ababa.12 So, to press Ethiopia to abide by the EEBC demarcation decision, Eritrea adopted a strategy similar to the one employed by Syria toward Israel over the past 30 years, whereby Damascus has backed Hezbollah in Lebanon as a way to maintain leverage in negotiations and attempt to force Israel to withdraw its occupation forces from the Golan Heights.
Similarly, since at least late 2005, Eritrea has supported opposition movements in Ethiopia such as the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Somali Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) as well as various anti-Ethiopian Islamic groups in Somalia opposed to the internationally recognized and Ethiopian-backed Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG). Eritrea first backed the Council of Islamic Courts (CIC), then the Alliance for the Reliberation of Somalia (ARS) and, more controversially (which Eritrea denies), the radical al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab terrorist group. Asmara views the TFG as an Ethiopian proxy whose control of Somalia would guarantee Ethiopian hegemony in the Horn of Africa and allow Addis Ababa to resist indefinitely implementing the EEBC border decision. Thus, just as Syria would terminate support for Hezbollah once Israel returns the Golan, so the argument goes, Eritrea would stop playing a spoiler role in Somalia once Ethiopia returns occupied Eritrean lands.
THE ISLAMIC THREAT IN SOMALIA
The August 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania forced the United States to focus on the terrorist threat in the Horn of Africa.13 But Washington only adopted a more forceful and coordinated interagency counterterrorism approach toward the region after the 9/11 attacks.14 President George W. Bush presented the international community with a stark choice: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”15 The governments of Ethiopia, Djibouti and Eritrea immediately agreed to join the U.S.-led GWOT.
Following the defeat of the Taliban regime and the scattering of al-Qaeda forces from Afghanistan, U.S. intelligence analysts foresaw that the Horn of Africa would play a key role in the next phase of the GWOT.16In mid-September 2002, 800 U.S. Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) forces were deployed to Djibouti, and the CIA was reportedly launching Predator drone attacks against al-Qaeda and other suspected terrorist targets in the region.17 To oversee GWOT operations (conduct counterinsurgency and counterterrorism training) as well as support anti-piracy operations in the “greater” Horn of Africa, under the codename Operation Enduring Freedom-Horn of Africa (OEF-HOA), the Pentagon in October created the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA). In May 2003, it moved its headquarters to Camp Lemonier in Djibouti. The previous September (2002), a month before the establishment of the CJTF-HOA, the Bush White House released a National Security Strategy paper that essentially justified Washington’s right to wage “preventive war,” unilaterally, if necessary, to attack terrorists and their infrastructure and even overthrow regimes perceived as threatening U.S. national security.18
Despite the failure of previous peace conferences to establish a national-unity government in Somalia, the fallout from Afghanistan and the 2003 invasion of Iraq heightened international awareness and pressure to find a political resolution to end the anarchy in Somalia. In October 2004, the Mbgathi peace process sponsored by the East African Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) brokered the creation of a new Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG).19 The TFG’s political and military weakness and the chaotic security situation in Mogadishu, however, forced the TFG to establish a provisional capital at Baidoa, 125 miles outside Mogadishu. The Somali warlords who had terrorized Mogadishu were under attack from a coalition of 11 autonomous Islamic courts, the Council of Islamic Courts (CIC), which was formed in 2000. By the end of 2004, the CIC had emerged as the “third force” in Somali politics and pushed the warlords out of the capital. The CIC started restoring law and order, opening schools and providing food, thereby winning Somali hearts and minds and emerging as the most popular political force in the country.20
The Bush administration, however, viewed the CIC as a potential Somali “Taliban.” One of the CIC’s two militant Somali courts was led by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, who had been placed on the FBI’s terrorist watch list, and whose former organization, Al-Ittihad Al-Islamiya (AIAI), was designated a terrorist organization by the State Department after the 9/11 attacks, owing to the AIAI’s alleged links to al-Qaeda. Rather than throwing U.S. support fully behind the TFG, which the United Nations, the African Union (AU) and the United States had recognized as Somalia’s legitimate provisional government, the Bush administration backed a coalition of Somali warlords, some of whom had fought against U.S. forces during the October 1993 Battle of Mogadishu (Black Hawk Down) and had played a major role in destroying Somalia. With the warlords agreeing to cooperate with the U.S. terrorist-rendition program, the CIA supported the creation of the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism (ARPCT) that in February 2006 launched a new war against the CIC.21 In early June, the CIA-backed ARPCT force had been defeated, and the CIC declared victory in this second battle between the warlords and the CIC for control of Mogadishu.
The CIC-ARPCT war was fueled in part by foreign powers violating UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 733 (January 23, 1992), which placed a general and complete arms embargo on Somalia. In the aftermath of 9/11, alarmed by the continued flow of arms into Somalia, in July 2002 the UNSC established a Panel of Experts on Somalia. In December 2003, it was replaced by the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia (UNMGS) to gather general information on violations of the Somali arms embargo and report back to the UNSC.22During the CIC-ARPCT war in the spring of 2006, both sides were financed by local business elites and primarily purchased their weapons at the infamous Bakarah arms supermarket in Mogadishu. But the May 2006 UNMGS report also listed several instances that occurred between the end of April and mid-May in which Eritrea provided weapons to the CIC, though the report notably failed to mention CIA support for the ARPCT.23
Publicly, the Bush administration withheld judgment on the CIC, despite claims that the CIC was simply the AIAI in disguise.24 Privately, Ethiopian officials criticized the United States for its failed policy of supporting the “useless” Somali warlords rather than coordinating policy with Addis Ababa and helping the IGAD-backed Somali TFG.25 Addis Ababa would never allow the emergence of a radical Islamic fundamentalist regime in Mogadishu, especially one advocating Somali irredentism. To avoid antagonizing Ethiopia, by late June 2006, the State Department’s Africa Bureau essentially recommended that Ethiopia be granted a blank check to act against the CIC to prevent a “jihadist” takeover of Somalia. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer privately stated, “Any Ethiopian actions in Somalia would have Washington’s blessing.”26 High-ranking U.S. military officials, including General John Abizaid, commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), did urge Ethiopia to proceed with caution and not go rushing into war.27But on November 23, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, assured that Washington would not condemn Ethiopian military intervention in Somalia, presented the case for war against the CIC to the Ethiopia parliament. He argued that the situation in Somalia represented a “clear and present danger” to Ethiopia, citing the CIC’s declaration of “jihad” against Ethiopia at the end of September, and asked the parliament to approve a resolution authorizing the use of “all means necessary” to counter the threat posed by the CIC.28 The Ethiopian parliament overwhelmingly passed the resolution several days later.
A much more disturbing picture of foreign military intervention in Somalia, including extensive violations of the UN arms embargo, was documented in the November 2006 UNMGS report to the Security Council.29With the elimination of the warlords as a relevant actor in the struggle for power in Somalia, the TFG and CIC faced off against each other, but not alone. The TFG received support from Ethiopia, Uganda and Yemen — all of whom were recipients of U.S. security assistance — while Eritrea, Djibouti and a number of Middle East actors allegedly provided weapons, funds or logistical assistance to the CIC, including Libya, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Hezbollah. In mid-November, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and other UN experts warned countries and groups funneling arms to the warring parties in the “failed” state of Somalia to end their interference or risk its becoming another Iraq.30
The rhetoric, rumors and misinformation/disinformation surrounding the situation in Somalia fed Secretary-General Annan’s worst fears that an Iraqi-style insurgency, fueled and exacerbated by foreign military intervention, would erupt should Ethiopia invade Somalia. An eerie parallel seemed to be playing out reminiscent of the situation preceding the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. The CIC stood accused of maintaining links to international terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, and supporting “rogue-state” weapons-of-mass-destruction ambitions. Two of the 11 Islamic courts that formed the core organizational structure of the CIC were seen as militants with ties to terrorist groups, in particular, the court led by Sheikh Aweys, the former leader of the AIAI. After taking control of Mogadishu in June, the CIC leadership under the moderate Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed had sent two letters to the Bush administration offering to cooperate with the U.S. GWOT. However, the State Department expressed skepticism about the general orientation of the CIC.31
The CIC’s purported political moderation was placed further in doubt during the autumn of 2006 by reports that strengthened the “Taliban and Iraq” analogies. In mid-November 2006, reports surfaced that 720 CIC Somali fighters had been sent to Lebanon to do battle with Hezbollah against Israel during the July-August 2006 war in Lebanon, and that Hezbollah had subsequently sent a small number of military advisers to Somalia.32 Moreover, the November 2006 UNMGS report detailed three illegal Iranian arms shipments to the CIC that occurred in late July.33 Reportedly, Teheran offered to provide more weapons to the CIC in exchange for uranium (small amounts were purportedly located in areas under the control of the CIC), presumably for use in Iran’s nuclear program.34 With Prime Minister Meles characterizing the CIC as a “franchise of al-Qaeda in the making” and Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer declaring in mid-December that the CIC was “led by extreme radicals right now, not the moderates we all hoped would emerge,” political cover had been provided to justify Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia.35
By early December 2006, the CIC, now firmly in control of Mogadishu, was expanding its control across southern and central Somalia and threatening the TFG position at Baidoa. Ethiopian military plans called for a five-to-seven-day “quick and decisive” in-and-out military operation to unseat the CIC and allow the TFG to establish itself in Mogadishu.36 On December 24, Ethiopia invaded Somalia and by the end of the month had driven the CIC out of the capital and allowed the TFG to claim power. Addis Ababa’s prediction of a “quick and decisive” war to defeat the CIC proved correct. But by early January 2007, more than 10,000 Ethiopian military forces occupied Somalia and would remain until the end of January 2009, during which time the TFG and Ethiopian soldiers confronted an Iraqi-style insurgency including roadside bombings, assassinations and suicide attacks.
Following the defeat of the CIC, external military backing for the Islamic Courts largely ended. The United States deployed to a small airfield in eastern Ethiopia a special operations unit, Task Force 88, to support quick-strike “surgically targeted” attacks against fleeing CIC extremists and al-Qaeda operatives in southern Somalia.37 Nonetheless, Somali warlords and al-Shabaab were rearming at the Bakarah arms market in Mogadishu. The July 2007 UNMGS report also claimed that huge quantities of arms had been provided to al-Shabaab by and through Eritrea.38 Moreover, by the spring of 2007, Eritrea had become the main safe haven for Somali opposition figures, including the CIC, exiled members of the TFG parliament and the Somali diaspora community, leading Assistant Secretary Frazer to warn in mid-August that the State Department was considering designating Eritrea a state sponsor of terrorism. Frazer defended the U.S. threat against Eritrea — which some critics felt was backing Asmara into a corner — by criticizing Asmara’s support for Ethiopian rebel groups and its willingness to “associate with any extremist terrorist organization” to topple Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.39
Despite this public threat, in early September, Eritrea hosted the Somali Congress for Liberation and Reconstitution to “develop a Somali solution for a Somali problem.”40 The newly created Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia (ARS) split between moderates led by Sheikh Sharif, who favored engagement with the TFG even while Ethiopian troops occupied Somalia, and hardliners backed by Eritrea and led by Sheikh Aweys, who demanded a complete Ethiopian military withdrawal from Somalia as a precondition for negotiations.41 In mid-May 2008, the ARS met in Djibouti to discuss the terms of reconciliation with the TFG. Over the objections of the hardline rejectionists, on June 9, the ARS’s moderate Islamist and secularist factions agreed to negotiate with the TFG, resulting in another split within the ARS, the moderates remaining in Djibouti and the hardliners returning to Asmara. Then, in July, the militant rejectionists led by Sheikh Aweys seceded from the ARS. Sheikh Sharif now commenced negotiations with the TFG, and in February 2009, following the withdrawal of Ethiopian military forces, he returned to Somalia and became president of the TFG.
Eritrea continued to play the role of “spoiler” by, according to UNMGS reports, repeatedly violating the UN arms embargo. But now Eritrea’s defiant behavior was taking Asmara down a very dangerous path. The July 2007, April 2008 and December 2008 UNMGS reports accused Eritrea of providing arms and logistical support to al-Shabaab, which on February 26, 2008, had been designated a foreign terrorist organization.42The State Department considered Asmara’s “flat denial” of support for al-Shabaab a “lie.” But in trying to convince members of the European Union to support international sanctions against Eritrea, the United States met some resistance from Western diplomats who wondered, “Are [U.S.] claims of Eritrean support of al-Shabaab like those of Saddam’s WMD program?”43 Despite these reservations, on December 23, 2009, the UNSC passed Resolution 1907, imposing international sanctions on Eritrea that included an arms embargo. It cited the ongoing border dispute with Djibouti, which Eritrea had instigated in April 2008, and Asmara’s support for armed groups in Somalia.
Asmara hoped that U.S.-Eritrean relations would improve once Barack Obama was sworn in as president in January 2009, and that Washington would adopt a more balanced approach toward the Eritrea-Ethiopia border dispute. But U.S.-Eritrean relations continued to disintegrate over the next two years. The March 2010 and July 2011 UNMGS reports again claimed Eritrea continued to support al-Shabaab.44 More disturbingly, in August 2011, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice accused Eritrea of being linked to a January 2011 plot to carry out bombings during the AU summit in Addis Ababa. Citing this plot, the unresolved border dispute with Djibouti and the continuing support for armed groups in Somalia, UNSC Resolution 2023 was passed on December 23, 2011, imposing additional international sanctions on Eritrea.
The UNMSG, the United States and most Western countries realized that Asmara’s clear pattern of violating the UN arms embargo on Somalia by supporting extremist groups and individual warlords opposed to Somalia’s internationally recognized TFG was directly linked to the Eritrea-Ethiopia border dispute.45Nonetheless, Eritrea’s proxy war in Somalia against Ethiopia (and Addis Ababa’s TFG proxy) resulted in Eritrea’s becoming increasingly isolated diplomatically in East Africa and worldwide. Eritrea’s “principled” defiance of the international community by playing a “spoiler” role in Somalia was leading Asmara down the path to becoming a rogue state and perhaps even being designated a state sponsor of terrorism. Eritrea opted to break out of this diplomatic isolation and address its own growing sense of insecurity by forging a political and strategic relationship with Washington’s primary regional adversary, Iran.
THE FLANKING STRATEGY
Over the past several years, Iran has exploited Eritrea’s political isolation — owing to Asmara’s continued support for Somali opposition forces — to establish a strategic foothold in the southern Red Sea region. Strategically, Eritrea offers the Iranian navy a friendly port of call to support extended deployments in the Gulf of Aden/Red Sea. Eritrea also provides a maritime link between Iran and Syria by supporting Iranian naval forces moving from the Indian Ocean through the Red Sea and Suez Canal to the Mediterranean. Moreover, since November 2008, Iranian warships conducting anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia have used Eritrea’s southern port of Assab.
While Iranian naval deployments to preserve the freedom of navigation are legitimized by UN Security Council Resolutions and the Law of the Sea Treaty (UNCLOS), the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel, in particular, have expressed concern about Iran’s naval presence in the Gulf of Aden/Red Sea region and its military activities at Assab. Israeli officials claim that Iranian weapons have been offloaded at Assab and then smuggled overland through Sudan and Egypt’s Sinai to Hamas in Gaza. Riyadh and Sanaa have accused Iran of shipping arms from Eritrea across the Red Sea to al-Houthi rebels, who have been waging an off-and-on struggle against the Yemeni government since 2004 and at times clashing with Saudi security forces in northwestern Yemen near the Saudi border. Eritrea’s strategic cooperation with Iran, therefore, has allowed Tehran to increase its political and military influence in the Horn of Africa and strategically outflank Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Eritrea’s strategic alignment with Iran represents a dramatic foreign-policy shift for Asmara. After gaining independence in 1993, Eritrea aligned with the United States, befriended Israel and opposed Sudan, Iran’s Islamic ally in the greater Horn of Africa region. Tehran’s support for the Islamist National Islamic Front (NIF)-backed military regime that seized power in Sudan on June 30, 1989, eventually put Iran and Eritrea on a collision course. During the 1990s, the Iran-Sudan relationship could be viewed as a defensive alliance between two isolated governments under siege by the West. Alternatively, as Eritrea and other secular governments in the region charged, Sudan was acting as the springboard for extending Iranian and radical Islamist influence into North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa.46
Consequently, as late as May 2006, tension continued to exist between Iran and Eritrea. Asmara feared that Tehran’s policy of “regional Islamization,” having targeted Eritrea in the past, could do so again.47 With the backing of Iran, Sudan had supported Eritrean opposition groups, including the Eritrean Islamic Jihad Movement (EIJM). To demonstrate Asmara’s disapproval of Iranian foreign-policy behavior, including Tehran’s radical Islamic agenda and nuclear ambitions, in the spring of 2006 Eritrea agreed to oppose Iran’s candidacy for the UN Human Rights Council. Moreover, Eritrea had never established diplomatic relations with Iran and at this time maintained no relationship with Tehran on any level. So, despite the growing discord between Washington and Asmara, senior Eritrean political leaders all still agreed that, with respect to Iran, a closer “relationship would not be to the advantage of Eritrea politically, strategically or ideologically.”48
By mid-December 2006, Eritrea’s position regarding engagement with Iran had changed dramatically, though not surprisingly, according to diplomatic observers in Asmara.49 During 2006, the United States had scaled back engagement with Eritrea, particularly military cooperation. Moreover, Eritrea apparently decided that Washington would continue to support Ethiopia’s position not to implement the April 2002 EEBC demarcation decision. The pro-Ethiopia slant in U.S. policy in the Horn was borne out behind the scenes when, in early February 2006, Assistant Secretary Frazer, having concluded that the EEBC decision “was wrong” and that a major piece of disputed territory should be awarded to Ethiopia instead of Eritrea, asked U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton to request that the Security Council reopen the question. Stunned by Frazer’s willingness to violate international law, Bolton said he “was at a loss to explain that to the Security Council, so I didn’t.”50 Despite Bolton’s disapproval of the State Department’s backing of Ethiopia’s “illegal” policy, Washington had refused for over four years to adopt a more balanced or “principled” stance on the border dispute. Sensing Washington’s pro-Ethiopia policy bias would remain unchanged, Eritrea “made a strategic decision to reject engagement with the [United States] and to seek closer ties with a range of states, including Iran and Venezuela, who do not share [the U.S.] world view.”51
Over the next 18 months, Eritrea and Iran rapidly moved to establish and increase bilateral political and economic relations. At the end of May 2007, Tehran appointed a non-resident ambassador (based in Sudan) to Eritrea, and Asmara reciprocated in March 2008, assigning a nonresident ambassador (based in Qatar) to Iran. The Eritrean foreign minister attended the September 2007 Non-Aligned Movement’s Conference on Human Rights and Cultural Diversity held in Tehran — an indicator of Eritrea’s shifting policy toward Iran, considering that in the spring of 2006 Eritrea had opposed Iran’s candidacy to the UN Human Rights Council. In May 2008, Eritrean President Issaias Afwerki paid a two-day visit to Iran, meeting with President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and signing four agreements to improve bilateral political and economic relations, including deals to expand trade and encourage Iranian investment in Eritrea’s mining, agricultural, industrial and energy sectors.52 At the end of Issaias’s visit, the two presidents issued a joint statement noting that “Iran and Eritrea share very close stances on different regional and global issues.”53
The pro-Ethiopia slant of the U.S. State Department’s Africa Bureau, coupled with the Bush administration’s “zero-tolerance policy” toward terrorism, pushed Eritrea into Iran’s corner. In early October 2008, the State Department issued a directive banning U.S. arms sales to Eritrea for “not fully cooperating with anti-terrorism efforts,” placing Eritrea in the company of Iran, Syria, Cuba, North Korea and Venezuela.54 Some Western terrorism experts felt the State Department’s continuing threat to place countries such as Eritrea on the SSTL “is flawed and often does more harm to U.S. interests than good.”55 In the specific case of Eritrea, this threat “was aimed more at appeasing Ethiopia, a U.S. ally, in its proxy war in Somalia, than at punishing Eritrea for abetting terrorism.”56 In fact, the annual country report on terrorism submitted in December of each year to the State Department from the U.S. embassy in Asmara for 2008 and again for 2009 both noted that Eritrea was cooperating in a limited way in the GWOT by providing over-flight clearance for U.S. military aircraft.57
While Washington was most disturbed by Eritrea’s alleged support for al-Shabaab, the United States, like Israel and Saudi Arabia, was also alarmed by Eritrea’s growing strategic cooperation with Iran. In January 2009, on the pretext of fighting piracy, Iran sent two destroyers to the Gulf of Aden that used Eritrea’s port at Assab. The Iranian warships arrived in the region during Israel’s 22-day assault on Gaza, raising red flags in Israel. Back in January 2002, Israeli commandos had boarded the Iranian cargo ship Karine A, seizing 50 tons of arms, including long-range missiles, apparently destined for Yasser Arafat’s Fatah forces in the West Bank. Israel feared that the Iranian destroyers were deployed not to fight piracy but to protect Iranian cargo ships carrying arms to resupply Hamas in Gaza that would transit the Gulf of Aden, Bab al-Mandab, the Red Sea and the Suez Canal to Egyptian territorial waters in the Mediterranean Sea. There, by night, weapons would be offloaded to Palestinian fishing boats for the dangerous run, under the gunsights of the Israeli military, to the coast of Gaza.58
To mollify Israeli fears that Iran would rearm Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups in Gaza, Washington agreed to expand the mission of Combined Task Force (CTF)-151, operating under the authority of CENTCOM to engage in anti-piracy operations, to now include tracking Iranian arms shipments.59 In July 2009, Israel moved two warships from the Mediterranean through the Suez Canal to supplement the Israeli naval presence in the Red Sea. By doing this, Israel had enhanced its abilities to track and intercept weapons being sent directly by sea from Iran to Gaza but failed to resolve overland arms smuggling. Iran would purportedly offload weapons at Eritrean ports, and from there Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRG) would accompany convoys moving northward through Sudan to the Sinai and into Gaza.60 Countering the Iranian naval presence in the southern Red Sea and Gulf of Aden to protect the freedom of navigation for Israel through the Bab al-Mandab also served a broader Israeli strategic objective. It would guarantee, in the event of a crisis or war with Iran, that Israeli Dolphin-class submarines — reportedly armed with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles — could, without refueling, quickly deploy to the Gulf of Oman to provide Israel with a first-strike or retaliatory nuclear capability vis-à-vis Iran.61
Saudi Arabia, too, was alarmed by the growing Iranian naval presence in the Gulf of Aden and military activities in Eritrea. Riyadh viewed Tehran’s deployment of warships to the Gulf of Aden in mid-November 2009, on the grounds of protecting Iranian commercial shipping from piracy, as a cover. It would enable Iran’s ships to dock at Eritrea’s port of Assab and then smuggle arms across the Red Sea to the Shiite (Zaydi) al-Houthi rebels in Yemen’s Saada province, near the Saudi border. Seeing an Iranian hand behind the al-Houthi rebellion, and bolstered by claims that Hezbollah officers were advising the rebels, in November 2009 Saudi Arabia sent three warships to patrol the northern Yemeni coastline to prevent arms from being smuggled into the north of Yemen.62 However, undaunted by the U.S., Israeli and Saudi military responses and deciding to further enhance its naval capabilities in the region, Iran announced in October 2011 that one of its destroyers would soon be deployed to the Red Sea.63
The extent of Iranian (and Israeli) military involvement in Eritrea was clouded by both the closed nature of the Eritrean political system and contradictory rumors, conjecture and (dis)information spread by the Israeli and Arab media and opponents of the PFDJ regime in Asmara. During the 1990s, the Arab media had often accused Asmara of allowing Israel to establish military bases in Eritrea. At the end of 2008 and in early 2009, reports now claimed Iran had built a naval base at Assab. In the spring of 2009, some analysts felt Eritrea was becoming a flashpoint between Iran and Israel, both reportedly conducting rival military and intelligence operations there.64 Iran was using Assab, in the south, as a transit point to send arms to Hamas in Gaza and the al-Houthi rebels in Yemen, while in the north Israel had established a listening post and naval supply base for Israeli submarines. In February 2009, Israel launched a drone attack, allegedly from Eritrean territory, killing several Iranian Revolutionary Guards traveling with a convoy in Sudan that was attempting to smuggle arms to Gaza.65 President Issaias repeatedly denied these reports, claiming Eritrean “political culture” opposed alliances and foreign military bases.66
The Eritrea-Iran strategic alliance has endured despite certain policy differences, owing to the pragmatism demonstrated by both Asmara and Tehran. While Eritrea has continued its proxy war in Somalia, Iran essentially made peace with the TFG in Somalia and maintains cordial diplomatic relations with Ethiopia and Djibouti. Iran supplies oil to Djibouti, maintains an embassy in Ethiopia, where the Iranian ambassador also serves as a nonresident ambassador to Djibouti and an official observer of AU summits held in Addis Ababa. In February 2010 and again in September 2011, Tehran provided millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to Somalia, while resisting Ethiopian and TFG pressures to end ties with Eritrea.67 Asmara, in turn, maintains full diplomatic relations with the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel and adamantly opposes any attempt by Iran to export its Islamic agenda to the Horn of Africa. Perhaps to add a touch of irony and demonstrate Eritrea’s independence, defiance and pragmatism, in February 2012 President Issaias accepted the credentials of the newly accredited Iranian and Israeli ambassadors to Eritrea at the same ceremony.68
The pro-Ethiopia slant underlying the American GWOT policy in the Horn of Africa has produced several unintended consequences. First, by supporting Ethiopian military intervention in Somalia, Islamic extremists such as al-Shabaab could present themselves as waging a war of national liberation against military occupation by Somalia’s most bitter enemy. While Ethiopian officials did prove correct in predicting a quick and decisive military victory over the CIC, their expected five-to-seven-day operation of getting in and out turned into a two-year military occupation. Hundreds of Somali civilians were killed or wounded by Ethiopian troops and reportedly suffered other abuses at the hands of the Ethiopians. So, by backing Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia in 2006, the Bush administration inadvertently fed “the monster” (Islamic extremism) that the United States had set out to destroy.
Second, the United States may have missed (destroyed) the opportunity for the reunification of Somalia under a strong, popular, albeit Islamic, government that had restored law and order in areas under its control. The CIC’s nationalist political rhetoric, however, raised the specter of Somali irredentism reemerging as a force for instability in the Horn. Thus, while a stable and unified Somalia under the control of a “moderate” Sunni (Sufi)-dominated Islamic government might further U.S. counterterrorism policy, a reunified Somalia could once again pose an existential threat to Ethiopia. Not surprisingly, Ethiopia has supported the semi-autonomous breakaway regions in northwestern Somalia (Somaliland), where Addis Ababa has established a diplomatic mission, and northeastern Somalia (Puntland). Whereas the international community, including the United States, has refused to recognize Somaliland and Puntland as independent states, Ethiopian policy seems designed to keep Somalia weak and divided.
Third, Washington’s GWOT regional allies, perhaps mistakenly, drew the conclusion that the United States would tolerate and not openly condemn their military interventions in Somalia. In October 2011, another U.S. ally in the “greater” Horn of Africa, Kenya, sent military forces across the Somali border to create a safe zone in southern Somalia (the Jubaland Plan) using friendly Somali militias (i.e., warlords).69 Kenyan officials had discussed this plan with U.S. officials, including U.S. Assistant Secretary Johnnie Carson, in late January 2010. Carson raised several red flags, in particular the possibility that a semi-autonomous government in the region might challenge the authority of the TFG in Mogadishu. Moreover, in November 2011, Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia once again to fight al-Shabaab forces, though Addis Ababa did state they would be withdrawn by the end of April 2012. The Obama administration publicly refrained from criticizing either Nairobi or Addis Ababa.
Fourth, the diplomatic isolation of Eritrea opened the way for Iran to expand its influence in the Horn. During the Cold War, weak and vulnerable client states could threaten to defect to the other superpower in order to force changes in their patron’s policy — or actually do so if dissatisfied with their patron’s response. The end of the Cold War apparently neutralized the “threat of defection” as an effective ploy for weak powers to use in order to gain leverage over their foreign patrons. In the absence of an alternative global option, weak states, especially in the Horn of Africa, would now (re)align with Washington’s major regional adversaries to force changes in U.S. policy.
Finally, and not unexpectedly, just as authoritarian U.S. allies did during the Cold War, the GWOT has been used by Ethiopia as well as Kenya to shelter themselves from punitive U.S. economic sanctions based on their human-rights records and their backsliding from democracy promotion. No doubt the PFDJ regime in Asmara should be harshly condemned for imposing one of the world’s most systematically abusive political systems on the Eritrean people. But Washington can exert little leverage over Asmara. As part of the PFDJ’s policy of self-reliance, Eritrea has not requested aid from the United States since 2005. On the other hand, during the five-year period 2008-12, Ethiopia and Kenya have each received or requested more than $500 million annually in U.S. aid, ranking them among the top five recipients of American foreign assistance in Africa.70 Thus, the post-9/11 choice presented by Washington of “either you are with us or you are with the terrorists” has apparently revived a Cold War aphorism: “He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”
1 For a discussion of the interaction between dominant and subordinate regional subsystems, see L. Carl Brown, International Politics and the Middle East (Princeton University Press, 1984), 3-18. The core countries of the Horn of Africa are Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia. The “greater” Horn of Africa would also include Kenya, Sudan, South Sudan (since July 2011) and Yemen.