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Ethiopia and the Iran Factor: Fourth in a Series.

July 27, 2018

1. Ethiopia and The Iranian Factor. What is “the Iran Factor?”

What is most intriguing about the media hype extolling the change in prime ministers in Ethiopia and the fledgling reconciliation between Ethiopia and Eritrea is what is left out of the news. There is very little in the news – virtually nothing – about what hasn’t changed in Ethiopia (like essentially everything other than the new prime minister). While there was a reconfiguration at the top – cosmetic or real yet to be determined – in Ethiopia, no such juggling can be observed with Eritrean leadership, one of the most closed and repressive in Africa. While Ethiopia and Eritrea have “made nice” to each other for the first time in decades – more than likely as a result of threats and possible bribes of one kind or another from Washington – Ethiopian troops have yet to withdraw from the contested town of Badme as promised according to the Algiers Agreement of 2000.

But the biggest omission is elsewhere: the general failure of the U.S. (and European) media to report the long standing security and military relations between Washington and Addis Ababa. Without some understanding of the basic dynamics of these relations, one cannot understand what is behind Washington’s pressure for change in Ethiopia. Bottom line: fear of what I have dubbed “the Iran Factor.” (the security and military arrangements will follow in another blog entry).

My use of the term is not about how Iranian oil – and the U.S. sanctions against it – might factor into regional and global geo-politics. Rather it is the morbid fear in Washington, that as a result of popular revolutionary movements the world over, that Washington’s strategic allies elsewhere with opt out of their alliances with Washington as the Iranians did after the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979. The money, military support, training and political capital Washington put into first putting the Shah of Iran in power and then helping him stay there for 26 years all went down the drain.

While there are other markers of Middle East instability that can be noted, when the Shah of Iran was overthrown by a mass based popular movement, Washington’s control, its virtual hegemonic grip over the region,  began to erode, and has been eroding ever since despite Washington’s attempts to regain the regional initiative. 

Not all the U.S. directed and/or engineered toppling of governments (Iraq, Libya, attempted but failed in Syria), nor the collapse of Soviet Communism, has been able to compensate for this loss. Not to underestimate the staying power, its ability to do yet more damage in the region, yet for Washington by “losing Iran” their grip on regional power has been permanently loosened. Nor has arming Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Israel to the teeth proven to be an effective alternative. The great fear in Washington is that an Iran-like revolution that results in key country’s breakaway from the dictates of the current system might occur, elsewhere, including Ethiopia. To prevent such an occurrence though some form of preemptive action – militarily or politically – is the unstated goal of Washington’s War on Terrorism.

Washington has drawn certain conclusions from all this major political set back. It is shortly after the success and consolidation of the Iranian Islamic Revolution that a greater direct U.S. military build up began starting with rapid deployment forces, secret and not so secret military bases both in the MENA countries and nearby, the emergence of Centcom and Africom and the intensification of all kinds of black box Special Forces operations, mostly secret . We only learn about when they fail – as in the deaths of for U.S. Special Forces operatives in Niger in March of last year.

Engineering the overthrow of adversaries, real and perceive, euphemistically and inaccurately referred to as “regime change” has just been one part of American strategy to retain what is left of its shrinking global power. Another element of Washington’s agenda could be called “preventive political planning.” It entails acknowledging the growing strength of popular movements but rather than trying to repress them, instead trying to manage the and limit their scope. Such is the case of Ethiopia. This approach involves a much more careful assessment of public opinion in  Third World (and other) countries involved, complex and always underhanded ways of infiltrating and ultimately directing and managing such movements so that they stay within certain clearly proscribed economic and political bounds.

Take for example Washington’s involvement in what is referred to as “The Arab Spring.” Particularly in the cases of Tunisia and Egypt, the United States was well aware that its two tried and true allies, Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubaret in Egypt had become increasingly unpopular and isolated in their own countries with their social base narrowing to next to nil. Powerful opposition social movements with broad popular support had coalesced in both countries.

In like manner, Ethiopia’s new prime minister – Aliy Ahmed – came to power on a wave of national protest that forced the hand of the ruling EPRDF party “to do something.” “The something” turned into simply sacking one prime minister and replacing him with another, as much within the Ethiopian circle of power as the man he replaced, but polished in certain ways as to appear as a genuine reformer.

2. The Tunisian Case Compared

While I am generally familiar with the developments in Egypt, I know the Tunisian case in much greater detail and it is worth briefly repeating here as it parallels the Ethiopian developments to some degree. By the time that Zine Ben Ali in January 2011, his extended family clan and that of his wife, Leila Trabelsi, was forced out of the country a militant national opposition movement had long been in the making. It took initial form in the country’s phosphate mining district around Gafsa in Tunisia’s southwest close to desert conditions region. It proved unstoppable despite harsh government repression. At a certain moment the Gafsa opposition of the interior coalesced with the more middle class and professional classes of Tunisia’s more heavily populated coast regions. For the more observant political minds in the Obama Administration the writing was on the wall. Ben Ali had lost his mandate and the thin (and mostly foreign) threads that had kept him in power had snapped.

The danger of such moments, danger for the United States that is, is that the national oppositional alliance could come to power with its own agenda, as happened in Iran after 1979. Aware of its inability to repress and eliminate the Tunisian and Egyptian social movements, one way or another, Washington has instead tried to manage them. How this was done varies considerably. In the Tunisian and Egyptian case, interestingly enough, at first, Washington supported the rise of Muslim Brotherhood movements (in Tunisia referred to as Ennahdha), knowing that whatever their religious agenda, politically, economically and more importantly strategically, their programs were and are conservative. The Muslim Brotherhood lever worked better in Tunisia than in Egypt where the political stupidity of the Morsi government led to a military coup.

The plan here is simple: Change as little as possible. New faces in leadership (actually in the Tunisian case, also some old ones) but leave the institutional structures and essential power relations in tact. Make changes, but only those changes necessary to maintain the status quo. But act decisively before the popular movement gains power and dictates its own terms based on the popular will. To insure that he stays within the proscribed limits allowed to him, Aliy is heading for Washington DC to be vetted by the neo-liberals, right-wing Republicans and the the U.S. Defense Department, anxious to make sure that their investment was worth engineering what amounts to a quiet coup.

Understanding that Washington and its local allies would have to make some concessions to the popular revolts, the idea was to make as few concessions as possible, only those necessary. In the Tunisian case, seven years on, freedom of speech, although somewhat restricted still exists. However nothing else in the institutional structures of the country have changed. The economy remains hopelessly neo-liberal and managed by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. The overall social crisis in the country – high youth unemployment, infra-structural stagnation of the rural areas, a stagnating economy, high levels of corruption remain. Nepotism is as pronounced as before except rather than the Ben Ali and Trabelsi clans profiting at the expense of the population, it is Ennahdha that has. Strategically Tunisia is even more dependent on Washington (and Paris) than it ever was.

3. The Ethiopian Case As It Appears Today

The Ethiopian situation is a model of how U.S. works in Africa – how it has learned to get rid of disposable tyrants and replace them with more flexible one – give the trappings of change without the essence. From everything I can glean, the current Ethiopian reforms are stamped all over “Made in Washington DC.”  It was essentially a desperate effort on the part of the Trump Administration to head off a full scale rebellion in Ethiopia – a kind of preemptive political drone strike – to stop a full scale uncontrollable rebellion that would have threatened U.S.-Ethiopian quite elaborate security arrangements.

As for the political economy of the country – NOTHING has changed in Ethiopia’s neo-liberal authoritarian model, and if anything it about to get worse, nor is there even a hint of any loosening of the U.S.-Ethiopian strategic-military nexus at the source of so much of Ethiopia’s domestic and regional strife.

The degree to which the changes in Ethiopian politics are influenced by the “Iran factor” and follow more or less a similar script to the events in Tunisia are startling. As in the Tunisian case, Washington was well aware that the Ethiopian government of Prime Minister Hailimariam Desalegn  was approaching its death bed. This has been the case for at least the past two years at a time when the popular opposition in the country began to coalesce into a truly national movement, this despite punishing repression.

Keep something in mind: virtually EVERY Ethiopian knew, both within the national boundaries and in the diaspora that despite the current U.S. government and media support for the new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, that for virtually all of the years that the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front’s (EPRDF) existence these 27 years that it has been propped in power with American military hardware, that many of its torturers were “made in USA” and that if the EPRDF has been able to survive in power as long as it has, it is in large measure with the political assistance of U.S. political advisers, State, Defense Department or otherwise.

Thus the danger of the Iran factor coming into play again, the fear bordering on panic a popular revolution in Ethiopia will be something of a replay of Iran 1979, that the popular movement would come to power with U.S. influence in Ethiopia compromised. This was very much on the minds of both the Obama Administration in the last days of his presidency and with the Trump Administration as well, at least with those elements of the latter that deal with Africa.

The preventive measures taken to neutralize Ethiopia’s popular upsurge to date have focused around two themes – changing prime ministers and engineering some kind of reconciliation with Eritrea. Choosing a young, bright, personally seemingly liberal representative whose roots lie in the Omo ethnic group, a group in close to full revolt against the central government was one pillar of the political ediface.

Pressing the EPRDF to acquiesce to freeing political prisoners from what amounts to as the country’s concentration camps, unshackling (within certain limits) the country’s press and re-opening seriously censored internet usage, while admirable, are in fact, standard fare for African change in governments (in which a foreign power, France or USA, are key behind the scenes players. Really nothing unusual – admirable as it is – about such gestures, all of which can, when necessary be suddenly and sharply reversed. Regardless it produces a dramatic sense of relief and hope among the population.

The personal touch, his willingness to mingle with “the people,” to actually meet with members of the opposition recently released from prison further endeared Abiy Ahmed to an Ethiopian populace still very much on the fence as to his intentions. But the forced, rushed and one might add poorly planned reconciliation with Eritrea, that was the popular icing on the cake. That is what won over the hearts and minds that maybe, maybe Abiy Ahmed would be a different kind of prime minister. Keep in mind that despite the announcement of reconciliation, the actual troop withdrawals have yet to take place. My sense here – it is more intuition than based on any hot secret or confidential documents – is that this reconciliation was more of a forced marriage slammed together by Washington, with threats, or bribes offered to sweeten the deal.

From what I have read and from the comments made to me by his Ethiopian supporters here in Colorado, Abiy Ahmed appears at first glance, despite this analysis, as a sincere nationalist whose aspirations, genuine as they may be are constricted by the power realities in the country and abroad who fear radical change. Abiy is, at the outset of his ministry, also a man without an independent social base, one who could be easily disposed of – politically or otherwise – if he crosses certain unspoken but understood lines in his reform efforts. Without his strengthening his ties with Ethiopia’s overall population he can be little more than a useful tool to the power behind the scenes in the country – the military, security apparatus both in the hands of the Tigre minority.

Time will tell.

Power to the people of Ethiopia.

To be continued.



Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Five



10 Comments leave one →
  1. William Conklin permalink
    July 28, 2018 6:52 am

    A depressing thought that comes to mind immediately, if we look at Ethiopia as a microcosm of human political behavior, is that the psychopaths may always remain in power even if a person lower on the sociopathic spectrum is elected. Capitalism and its minions, exist because of this human pathology. So in the long run, short of a forced return to hunter-gatherer societies, in which the human primate brain evolved, is there any hope for Ethiopia or the rest of us?

    • July 28, 2018 8:50 am

      An economist I am reading – not an easy read I might add – Samir Amin – writing about the current global economic crisis – puts it another way. He looks at the state of the world economy experiencing its current convulsions, noting the rise of what he refers to as “the stupidity factor” – apt term

  2. November 21, 2018 12:51 am

    Rob Prince, pls include us in your links- the horn of africa center for strategic and international studies, Thnax!

    • November 21, 2018 1:08 am

      Thank you for kind words
      Yes this is my concern …that when all is said and done that the changes might be “all the change necessary to maintain the status quo.”

    • November 21, 2018 1:13 am

      PS will write you in the morning


  1. Ethiopians Celebrate the Collapse of Hailimariam Desalegn Dictatorship: Unfortunately There Are No Messiahs – 3 | View from the Left Bank: Rob Prince's Blog
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  4. Ethiopia and the American Geo-Politics in the Horn of Africa – Fifth of a Series. | View from the Left Bank: Rob Prince's Blog
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