Iran versus America: Who will blink first?

A worker plucks tea. Kenya exports a lot of tea to Iran. [Grace Ngige, Standard]
In Kenya we are glued on BBI, locusts and Cabinet reshuffle. It has become the hallmark of our no longer young nation, obsession with local issues.

At any given time, there is something to keep us busy. Keen observers will suggest this is not accidental. You can’t run a country without keeping the citizens occupied mentally.

Even governors have learned the same trick. Lower level leaders in both public and private sector believe workers must be kept busy. It is no wonder innovations are rare. Ever heard of skunkworks?

You can be sure that after BBI, there will be something else to keep us busy or annoyed. Political leaders are strategists; they have long term issues that keep us busy and short term ones like reshuffles or Miguna’s return. We often forget “wako kazi”.

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The US is different from us, they seem adept at distracting their citizens from local issues with global issues. A good example is Iran, as impeachment looms.

Let us get away from BBI and the reshuffle, which are dress rehearsals for 2022. Locusts will come and go. We even have an age set by that name – Ngigi. What is happening in the Middle East? Who will blink first between United States of America and the Islamic Republic of Iran? What are the issues?

The two countries have been at loggerheads since 1979 when a pro-American leaning regime was toppled. The Iranians overran the US embassy where Americans were held hostage for 444 days. Some suggest this hostage crisis was used by Republicans to propel President Ronald Reagan into power.

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It now seems that another Republican Donald Trump’s route to a second term at the White House passes through Iran. Do you recall when Osama Bin Laden was killed and the political dividends?

By killing an Iran general, who has been instrumental in exporting revolutions abroad, Trump upped the game in the Middle East. The death has had some intended and unintended consequences.

SEE ALSO :Iran curbs internet before possible new protests: reports

The US easily distracted American minds from impeachment to the Middle East. Two, it showed the superiority of the American intelligence and weapons. War has entered a new era of “micro targeting”. Americans and its allies can now target individuals without collateral damage.

Three, the death was a psychological victory for Americans who have not publicly admitted that they lost in Syria. Iran, with Russia, played a pivotal role in turning the tide of civil war in Bashir Assad’s favour.

Iran does not shy away from its ambition to become a Middle Eastern power. The timing of the general’s killing was significant in another way; it came just after a joint military exercise involving Iran, China and Russia - very symbolic to Iranians.

The death sent a message to other American adversaries; they have nowhere to hide. It also came after the US embassy in Baghdad, Iraq, was almost overrun by demonstrators who the US claims were sponsored by Iran.

The killing brought another issue to the limelight; the Gulf War is still smouldering 20 years later. Long after Saddam Hussein was removed from power and hanged, the power vacuum he left has never been filled. It’s that vacuum that ISIS has been trying to exploit.

SEE ALSO :Trump threatens Iran after Baghdad embassy attacked

Both Iran and the US are keen to fill it. Iraq is now being contested for by Americans, Iranians and ISIS. I feel for the land between two rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates.

But the killing unified the Iranians, made to feel threatened by the US. Did you watch the general’s funeral?

So who will blink first, the US or Iran? Interestingly, the reaction of American allies on the killing was late and muted. Russia and China, Iran’s allies, were also mute.

The shooting of a passenger plane shifted the discussion 180 degrees. It made Iran focus on internal issues, not America. One would want to see intelligence reports, say 50 years from now, explaining what really happened to that plane. It might be different from what we are hearing.

Where do we go from here?

SEE ALSO :Oil prices surge after US strike kills Iranian general

With the US elections later this year, it’s unlikely that Iran will get off the US political radar. Have you noted that North Korea has taken a backseat?

Projecting American power is a vote-getter. Iran is an easy target because it evokes emotions among the American populace. It is likely that as we approach November, there will be more victims of American power. I expect Venezuela and North Korea to get back on the radar.

Iran will not stop its adventurism in the Middle East where it enjoys the strategic advantage of proximity. Having tasted victory in Syria and Yemen to some extent, it is unlikely to sue for peace as long its allies, read China and Russia, are on its side. Its nuclear ambitions will remain a thorn in the American fresh.

The US is unlikely to withdraw from Iraq and give ISIS a blank cheque. This will be good news for Iran which has an upper hand in its neighbourhood. Iran is likely to remain “low” ensuring its proxies do her bidding.

George Bush’s axis of evil is unlikely to end soon. In fact it is likely to get more members. Beyond Iraq, Iran and North Korea, the axis has new players like Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan and the Sahel region. One strategic objective of the US and her allies is to shorten this axis of evil.

We can’t just watch the events; they are likely to draw us indirectly as trading partners with Iran or its allies. Remember we still import our oil from Middle East despite our discovery in Turkana and elsewhere? Electric cars have not significantly reduced the demand for oil. We also export tea to Iran.

Neither Iran nor the US will blink soon, even after 40 years. Add the religious factor and the contest shows clear signs of continuity. Future ideology of Iranian leaders is unlikely to change. The blinking will only come through voters if they change the regime in the US or Iran. But their reaction can be manipulated as the media has shown lately.

What we can’t dispute is that the Middle East, starring Iran, will remain an epicentre of political and economic intrigues. Finally I would love to visit Iran one day to see it from inside.

-The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi.

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