Iran’s interest in Ethiopia’s GERD further threat of dam politics, analysis

Rachel Brooks

April 18, 2021 

News, Analysis, Commentary 

Note: Commentary articles may contain opinion-based language. Opinions are attributed solely to the respective author. 

Above image: “The Nile in Cairo” by dungodung is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.The Nile, Egypt’s source of life since the dawn of the ages, is the subject of the controversy as negotiations talks have failed. 

Africa moves toward hydroelectric power in some of its most conflicted regions. The move to hydroelectric energy comes in the backdrop of the defining political battle of modern Africa, as conflict over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam continues in a deadlock. World security analysts look on in growing concern as fear over the impact of the Dam keeps Sudan and Egypt from budging on their positions, and as Ethiopia remains in stasis over its intentions. 

Despite the historical interests in each other that the two states share, the Iranian-backed Houthi rebellion preys upon Ethiopians fleeing the chaos in the civil conflict in their country of origin. 

Houthis set on fire Ethiopian refugees in Sana’a, spark outrage

 

All of Africa has a stake in the interests of hydroelectric renaissance, and the Africa Union’s meetings in April in Kinshasa, DRC highlighted this fact, with DRC leadership sounding appeals between the Nilotic nations to “make a fresh start” in negotiation, Arab News reported. Egypt and Sudan called on Kinshasa for street discussion of the dam as the stakes of its inauguration intensified. Egypt, for the first time in 7,000 years of history, was braced with the prospect of water shortages caused by the GERD alteration of the Nile’s flow, a prospect that caused panic in Egypt. Egypt has entertained the prospect of, if the need arises, launching commando attacks against the damn since 2013 under President Morsi, a secret meeting that was televised and for which Egypt apologized, as was reported by Al Arabiya in 2013.

Egypt’s current President El-Sisi warned that no one would be permitted to “take a single drop” of Egypt’s water or else the region will “fall into unimaginable instability,” 

Hydroelectric access to chaotic regions .  

Hydroelectric power sees a renewed interest in foreign investment in Africa. ESI Africa reported on March 26 that climate bonds were now a new criteria finance option opening for green debt products. Opening financial options for hydropower-linked projects is seen as a necessity in the financial markets linked to the risk and urgency the world places on the climate crisis. 

“The urgency of the climate crisis calls for the accelerated adoption of renewable and sustainable energy sources. Sustainable hydropower is part of the suite of clean energy options to replace coal, oil, and gas generation and help meet future demand for low carbon energy,” said Sean Kidney, CEO of the Climate Bonds Initiative, as he was quoted by ESI. 

Republic Underground has launched a series focusing on technology and innovation. See insights in this talk on Smart Cities for the Karabakh. 

The world makes haste in a region where diplomacy has moved at a slow pace, with frequent regress. The security status in North Africa adds greater strain to this climate urgency, and the friction crackling at the base of the kettle has the entire Continent on a simmering edge. From the financial angle, foreign powers have added increasing pressure to the stakes of the dam, as Bloomberg reported China among the major investors as of 2020. 

The surge of power and the threat of war

The threat of looming shooting conflict has not been far from the minds of any party invested in Africa’s hydroelectric rebirth. Political conflict over the GERD was described by Defense Arabia as “war-like” since the dam was announced in 2009. The surge of power comes with the threat of war as Ethiopia poses not only a threat to the quality of Blue Nile flow but also the political threat of electric dominance. With the GERD’s inauguration planned for 2022, Ethiopia will launch the seventh-largest hydroelectric plant in the world. The GERD will be the biggest hydroelectric plant in all of Africa. 

Ethiopia’s hydroelectric production was described by analyst Col. Ret. Dr. Jacques Neriah of Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs as “an existential threat” to millions of Egyptians, citing statements by Egyptian Prime Minister El-Sisi who warned the UN of the impact damming the Blue Nile flow and controlling its flow on the border of Ethiopia and Sudan will have on Egyptian livelihood. Egypt and Sudan alike have threatened the possibility of pursuing warfare to stop Ethiopia’s intended inauguration of the project and flooding of the dam by July 2021. Egypt and Sudan have seen this as a “last resort” for the daily lives of Egyptians as well as for the stakes Sudan’s dam projects face as a result of the GERD inauguration. 

The deep danger of a weaponized water conflict 

Neriah noted that “still waters run with deep dangers” as he described the compounded risks of the dam. The risks Neriah described not only pose dangers to the climate and agrarian interests of the MENA but also the ripple effect of associated policy.

Hydroelectric power has been a subject of ethical debates as questions have arisen whether the renewable energy source has the means to be turned against the world, see Machine Design. Added to the weight of concern over human rights issues is the weight of politicization and weaponization of the sudden surge of power that the GERD dam could bring to the regional actors with vested interest. Should a shooting war arise from the dispute,  the threat of a technology-backed conflict comes from the production capacity for power that the dam itself yields.

The GERD likewise poses investment interest dangling as forbidden fruit to nation-state actors who often stake their regional proxy agendas in foreign theaters. Modern Diplomacy wrote regarding the weaponization of energy in May 2019, describing the weaponization of energy by Russia and Iran. 

This panel discusses Iran’s role in Marib’s humanitarian disaster. The regime’s actions to back insurgencies and conflicts that suit the regime’s interests hold a precedent for the volatile potential of the Ethiopia GERD project, as renewable energy is an attractive prospect for the states known to weaponize energy markets.

 

“Since oil, natural gas, and coal are now intertwined with geopolitics, international relations, foreign policy, realist balancing that pits nation against nation, and macroeconomic monetary policy; energy and electricity are now coupled with national security,” wrote Todd Royal, in Modern Diplomacy. Royal highlights in his article the tendency of actors such as Iran to violate internationally brokered energy agreements in favor of nationalistic advancement. 

Iranian interest in Ethiopia 

In March 2021, Robert Steele researched the relationship over the last 60 years between Iran and Ethiopia. He noted that through the 60s and 70s Iran had increased its economic, political, and strategic interests with Ethiopia specifically under the influence of the Shah and his relationship with Haile Selassie. This historical assessment during the Cold War of Ethiopia’s value carried over into recent history when Iran once again eyed Ethiopia’s values in 2009, at the inception of its GERD project, see Critical Threats.  The Critical Threats report noted that Ethiopia was a member of the Non-Aligned Movement and stated its continued support of the IRGC’s use of peaceful nuclear energy. 

Egypt will not “accept unilateral GERD terms”; Mohammed Wadie explains

 

Iran’s established historical interests in Ethiopia have shown themselves again in recent months, with The New York Times reporting in February a foiled plan by the IRGC to use Ethiopia as a soft target point for the UAE’s embassy in the region, a plot that Iran denied. Ethiopia, wrote the Economic Times of India, failed to “point the finger atnIran for the plot” and did not publicly state why. The attempted targeting of the UAE embassy in Ethiopia was part of a larger plot against the Emirati embassies in the region, with Iran targeting the Emirati embassy of Khartoum, Sudan. Iran was livid against the UAE for its recent choice to normalize ties with Israel, wrote the Economic Times.  

The Reporter of Ethiopia hosted an interview with Ambassador Behzad Khakpour the head of the IRGC’s mission to Ethiopia since 2017 in 2019. The IRGC Ambassador described Iran and Ethiopia’s relationship as an ancient one:

“The relation of the two countries goes back 2500 years. In Persepolis, the capital of Achaemenid(a Persian Empire) which was built in 500 B.C (Before Christ), there is a rock art which shows the representative from Habasha were in the Court of Persia to attend to the Persian New Year (Norouz) ceremony. Another finding datesback some 1800 years ago, where Prophet Mani (a Persian religious leader and founder of Manichaean, in his teachings to his followers said:There are four most important kingdoms on earth “Persia, Rome, Aksum and China,” said Khakpour as he was quoted by The Reporter Ethiopia.

“For ages, Iran and Ethiopia had tremendous trade relations in the Horn of Africa, Yemen, and the Persian Gulf region. In the contemporary era and right after the First World War, in the League of Nations (which was the predecessor of the United Nations(, Iran and Ethiopia–that both have never been a colony of world powers–they were collaborating to shape a better world, a world free of Colonialism, injustice, and arrogation. Considering the long-lasting relationship between the two countries, and the importance of Ethiopia in Africa; Iran opened its Embassy in Addis Ababa some 70 years ago. This Embassy was the second Iranian Embassy in the whole of Africa after Cairo. Both countries have been enjoying safe and sound relations since that time, even changing the regimes in Iran and Ethiopia could not break the brotherly relations of the two nations,” the outlet continued to quote Khakpour.

This interview also gave some insights into the Iranian and Ethiopian relationship in terms of nuclear energy and energy trade.

“Our political relation currently is sound and very good. We feel that we enjoy a closer relationship, particularly in international affairs. As it is known, we Iranians reached a nuclear deal with those 5+1 countries in mid-2015. The deal primarily ended all UN sanctions that had been imposed against Iran. Iran is also required to observe some limitations in its nuclear activities. From that moment (the Deal), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has verified Iranian nuclear programs more than 13 times and confirmed Iran’s full compliance to the Nuclear Deal,” the outlet continued to quote Khakpour.

“The deal (which was endorsed by the UN Security Council and the international community) was put in jeopardy with the US’s withdrawal from the deal. US position against the deal was not welcomed by the world countries including Ethiopia. Ethiopia has shown its support to the nuclear deal several times, especially in the course of the United Nations Security Council (UN-SC) during its two-year-long membership [non-Permanent membership of UN-SC), Ethiopia has emphasized that the nuclear deal is a symbol of multilateralism which all parties should adhere to. Similarly, regarding the situation in Yemen, Iran and Ethiopia have a common position,” said Khakpour as he was quoted by The Reporter Ethiopia. The position of the Ethiopian federal government has done little to assist Ethiopians who, scattered by the nations civil conflict, have been at the mercy of Iran backed Houthi rebels.

 

“We have seen that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (Ph.D.) called upon all parties to cease the war and urge Yemenis to solve the dispute through negotiations. Similarly, Iran’s Foreign Minister, some three years ago, proposed the same and asked for a ceasefire and non-military interventions. Iran and Ethiopia mostly shared the same position regarding foreign affairs and international interference in any other country. Fighting against terrorism is another example where both countries are engaged in combating this threat. Ethiopia fights against terrorism in Somalia while Iran does the same in the Middle East. It is to be recalled that Iran has crushed ISIS in Iraq and Syria. We did the same in Afghanistan. Generally, both countries have similar views towards global issues,” said Khakpour, citing the rhetoric of the IRGC, as he had continued to do throughout his interview with The Reporter Ethiopia.

This interview in 2019 revealed the enduring relationship and cooperation between Iran and Ethiopia that appears to reflect itself in modern issues of soft targeting Abraham Accord’s signing nations of the Gulf. Iran and Ethiopia’s shared interests in energy and the exploitation of energy for politicization and weaponization by Iran could be exacerbated by the GERD’s influx of hydroelectric availability in the nation. The IRGC’s adaptability and willingness to back rebellions such as the Houthi crisis in Yemen shows that, when suitable to the regime’s interests, the IRGC will provide insurgency training and support to foreign military conflicts. This adds confliction to the issues presented in a potentially militarized outcome of the surrounding nation’s final solution to Ethiopia’s GERD insistance.