Africa remains vague on Iran-Israel dispute

Israel's military displays what they say is an Iranian ballistic missile which they retrieved from the Dead Sea after Iran launched drones and missiles towards Israel, at Julis military base, in southern Israel April 16, 2024.

Photo credit: Reuters

African is steering clear of the debate on whether Israel should retaliate, deescalate or whether Iran was wrong or right on launching an attack on Israel last week on Saturday.

Iran sent exploding drones and ballistic missiles to Israel, marking the first direct attack on Tehran’s old-time enemy, even though the two had targeted each other via proxies.

And while various leaders have spoken, either to condemn or urge escalation on the issue across the world, the continental bloc, African Union, was keeping a pass.

On Wednesday, the European Union leaders were expected to discuss stepping up sanctions against Iran. In Africa, sanctions are not something the African Union supports in general, and has spoken about the need to lift them on Zimbabwe or Cuba.

The AU had also been swift in condemning any terror attacks around the world including in Iran, and lay into Israel when it responded severely to the October 7 attack by Hamas, which is seen as an Iranian proxy in the West.

“The sense I am getting is that African states are concerned and some have responded,” Abdisaid M. Ali, Chairperson of Lomé Peace and Security Forum and Former Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of Somalia told the Nation on Wednesday.

“The response seems to be focused for now on requesting for restraint on the part of Israel because its response can determine whether the middle east and the world would be thrown into another major war. The response from states like Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa appears to be focused on this and have a more reconciliatory tone.”

For Africa, the policy on Israel is never static and Several African countries have trade relations and economic partnerships with both Iran and Israel that will be impacted.

Israel itself had been growing its diplomatic footprint in Africa, reaching out to countries that had initially broken relations decades earlier. However, after the October 7 attack, countries such as South Africa, Chad, and Sudan said they were pausing or downgrading relations in the wake of brutality on Palestinians.

South Africa and Algeria had also challenged African Union’s initial steps to accept Israel as an observer state.

Yet the silence from the continental bloc hasn’t been reciprocated by member states, with some sticking out their voice in what could also show the continent wasn’t speaking as one yet. Kenya expressed concerns about Iran’s attack, warning it was a dangerous move for the world.

“Kenya is deeply concerned by Iran's attack on the State of Israel. This disturbing development only serves to aggravate an already delicate situation in the Middle East,” said President Ruto on X, formerly twitter.

“The attack represents a real and present threat to international peace and security, contravenes the Charter of the United Nations and should be condemned by all peace loving countries.” Ruto hadn’t spoken on earlier claims by Iran when Tehran said Israel had flattened a diplomatic mission belonging to Iran in Damascus, Syria, where seven officials died.

However, Ruto did ask urge Israel to show “utmost restraint taking into account the urgent need for all parties to walk away from the brink beyond which recovery will be enormously difficult.”

His South African counterpart Cyril Ramaphosa said: “As the Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres has stated, there is a very real danger of a devastating region-wide escalation.”

“In this context, South Africa emphasizes that all parties must exercise the utmost restraint and avoid any act that would escalate tensions in a particularly fragile region.”

Some observers think Africa is scarred by the debacle of the war in Ukraine, when the continent was ignored on its plea for dialogue. South Africa, Senegal, Uganda, Congo-Brazzaville, the Comoros and Egypt even presented a ‘African peace proposal’ to both Ukraine and Russia but were ignored. Meanwhile, world powers pressured African countries to take sides. South Africa, traditionally an ally of Moscow, faced potential for AGOA ban if it continued to hold military cooperation with Russia, now heavily sanctioned in the West, for invading Ukraine.

Mr Ali said African countries are scared of an escalation as it could bring anew burden to their economies.

“The main impact that an escalation of this war will have on Africa is around petroleum, oil and lubricants (POL). There will be spike in oil prices, challenges of shipping and making oil and other mineral and agricultural products accessing will affect prices of goods. This may not immediately affect Africa as other places, but it certainly will,” he told the Nation.

Besides worsening humanitarian crises and turning attention of development partners away from Africa’s own problems, such a conflict could also enhance terrorist activities as some militants will want to take advantage. “We may also witness proxy wars and reactions in African countries, and the patterns may follow positions around the Israel-Hamas war,” Ali added.

After the Iranian attack, Moscow blamed the UN Security Council for failing to provide a response to Israel’s provocation on Iran.

“We have warned repeatedly that the numerous unresolved crises in the Middle East, primarily in the area of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which are often fueled by irresponsible, provocative actions, will exacerbate tensions,” Moscow said on Monday.

Iran, meanwhile has cited self-defence. Article 51 of the UN Charter says a nation or group of nations may have inherent right to self-defence or collective self-defence if attacked. Some international legal experts have argued the right to self defence does not always mean resorting to deadly violence to repay or even exceed the proportion.

That has not deterred Iran and its embassies abroad from defending its act as part of self defence, which it argues are provided for in the United Nations Charter.

“The response was in the exercise of Iran's inherent right to self-defence as outlined in Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, and a necessary and proportionate response to the Zionist Regime of Israeli's recurring military aggressions,” said a statement Iranian Embassy in Nairobi on Tuesday.

Iran had said Israel attacked its diplomatic premises in Damascus, Syria, on April 13 “which led to the martyrdom of seven Iranian senior military advisors.

“The legitimate military response by the Islamic Republic of Iran was a precise action and carried out carefully to minimise the potential for escalation and prevent harm to civilians and also deterrent any recurrence of such terroristic attacks on Iran, its interests or its diplomatic premises,” the Iranian embassy said, amplifying its home messaging.

Israel had argued the premises were holding up military threats making Tel Aviv to react. It argued the argument of a protected diplomatic premises, which in international law, should be inviolable, shouldn’t be holding because it was a threat to peace and security on Israel.

Iran said it had notified UNSC of Israel’s “acts in breach of international law and the Charter of the United Nations, as well as on Iran’s inherent right under international law to respond to such terrorist military attacks.”

The response by Iran, even when it notified everyone has raised a new level of threat especially since Israel has said it will respond. But Washington has been slamming brakes on Israel, urging for de-escalation instead.

“Regrettably, the United Nations Security Council has failed in its duty to maintain international peace and security, allowing the Israeli regime to transgress red lines and violate the fundamental principles of international law,” Iran said.

The Council is a 15-member organ charged with maintaining peace and security across the world. Its decisions are binding on every UN member but only five veto-holding countries can block substantive decisions such as on whether to punish an errant member. They include the US, France, UK, China and Russia.