In early 1978, Kenyan-Iranian relations came under great strain over the Ogaden war between Ethiopia and Somalia.
Kenya suspected that Iran was actively supporting Somalia and also arming it with weapons supplied by Britain and America.
While Iran and Kenya’s Western allies leaned towards Somalia in the conflict, Nairobi was sympathetic to the Soviet-backed Ethiopia, mainly because of Somalia’s claims to the northeastern part of Kenya.
Further annoying Kenya was a statement by the Iranian monarch, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, that his country would not stand and watch if Somalia were invaded. The remarks caused a furore and ignited a heated debate in Kenya.
Foreign Affairs minister Munyua Waiyaki warned that Iran was not an African country and therefore had no right to interfere in African affairs.
To calm the situation, the Iranian ambassador to Kenya, Ahmad Tavakoli, on January 30, 1978 said Tehran’s policy in the Horn of Africa had been misunderstood, adding that Iran had “already proposed to both Somalia and Ethiopia to explore all avenues for finding a peaceful solution”.
While emphasising that Iran respected territorial integrity, he reiterated the Shah’s remarks by stating, “Iran cannot remain indifferent should Somalia be attacked and invaded within its territorial borders.”
With Somali forces falling back in the Ogaden, Kenya feared that President Siad Barre of Somalia might attempt to save face by launching an attack on the North Eastern Province of Kenya using arms from Iran.
Around the time, an Egyptian plane carrying arms to Somalia was intercepted by Kenya Air Force jets and ordered to land in Nairobi for violating Kenyan air space.
All the arms and ammunition were taken to Kahawa Barracks.
Egypt retaliated the following day by impounding two Kenya Airways Boeing 707 planes with a total of 114 passengers, among them Mauritius Education minister Heeralall Bhugaloo.
The first plane was intercepted by the Egyptian Air Force while on its scheduled flight from London to Nairobi; while the second was impounded during a scheduled stop in Cairo to refuel on its way from Nairobi to London. Kenya reacted swiftly by releasing the Egyptian plane.
MEETING WITH MOI
With outbursts against Iran still dominating newspaper headlines and political debates, Tavakoli complained to Waiyaki that Iran was only supplying humanitarian aid to Somalia and that Kenya should regard Russia’s support of Ethiopia as a more serious threat.
He warned that his country would have no point of maintaining its diplomatic presence in Nairobi if Kenya continued with its attitude.
Tavakoli then approached Attorney-General Charles Njonjo to help him meet Vice-President Daniel arap Moi.
Njonjo promised to arrange a meeting. Njonjo worried that Iran, an important source of oil for Kenya, would make good its threat, approached the British high commissioner to Kenya, Sir Stanley Fingland, to discuss the situation.
Fingland advised him to arrange a meeting between Moi and Tavakoli as soon as possible.
He also suggested that Moi and Njonjo travel to Tehran to present their case before the Shah.
Njonjo agreed to consider the suggestions. But in a few hours of the meeting, Iran’s Foreign minister Abbas Ali Khalatbari announced that his country had decided to sever links with Kenya because of “unfounded criticism of Tehran’s policy towards the conflict between Somalia and Ethiopia”.
The Iranian ambassador was to be recalled and the embassy closed.
NJONJO'S PLEA UNHEEDED
Caught up in the diplomatic stand-off was the Middle East representative of the Kenya Meat Commission, who happened to be in Tehran at the time of the announcement.
He had to pay his own fare from Tehran to Cairo, where the Kenyan Embassy bought him a ticket to Nairobi after Iran Air rejected tickets issued by Kenya Airways.
That same evening, Khalatbari, on the instruction of the Shah, called London, requesting the British government to protect Iranian interests in Kenya.
This resulted in British High Commission Nairobi handling Iran’s consular services. The Iranians in Kenya at the time were fewer than 30, mainly doctors.
Iran’s action resulted in a flurry of diplomatic efforts to save the situation led by Njonjo, who had a personal influence on Kenya’s foreign policy.
Together with Moi, they appealed to the British to do everything they could to dissuade Iran from removing its diplomats in Nairobi.
When the British Minister of State in the Foreign Office was informed about the request, he remarked: “The Kenyans must face up to the consequences of their position. It is fair enough of us. We must not pull out their chestnuts until we have a full understanding with them.”
Nevertheless, they contacted the Shah, who promised to consider Kenya’s request and also committed not to use oil as a political weapon.
On February 22, 1978, three Kenyan Ministers — Njonjo, Isaac Omollo Okero and James Osogo, who was serving as acting Foreign Affairs minister in the absence of Waiyaki — informally approached the Belgian ambassador in Nairobi with a message they wanted conveyed to Iran.
Belgium had assumed the role of messenger between Nairobi and Tehran. The message was that Iran delays the removal of its ambassador and that Kenya wished to send a delegation to explain the misunderstandings.
Although the Shah expressed his intention to meet the Kenyan delegation, it was too late, as Tavakoli had left Kenya the previous day aboard an Olympic Airways flight.
Meanwhile, America also reported to the British that “one element in the Kenya government” had asked them to assist in solving the impasse.
At the end of February, Njonjo and Moi left for London on an official visit not related to the Kenya-Iran standoff.
But they used the opportunity to put pressure on the British to intervene.
Njonjo, while admitting that Waiyaki’s remarks were imprudent, also felt that they were unduly reported by the press. He reiterated that Kenya had no wish to fallout with Iran.
While in London, he also met with Ali Mozei, an Iranian diplomat who had served as chargé d'affaires in Nairobi before the arrival of Tavakoli.
During his time in Kenya, Mozei was something of a playboy, whose posting ended with a lawsuit after he accumulated a huge debt because of gambling.
The discussion centred on the possibility of Njonjo making an unofficial visit to Tehran to discuss the resumption of normal relations.
But efforts by the British to restore ties between Iran and Kenyan suffered a new setback when Waiyaki said to the Kenyan press that “… as far as we understand, Iran has not severed diplomatic relations with us, although it is up to them if they want to.”
The Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned the British ambassador in Tehran and informed him they were no longer interested in hosting a Kenya delegation.
In the second half of 1978, no meaningful discussion took place because of Waiyaki’s absence and the death of Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, but the tensions were still evident.
After the death of Mzee Kenyatta, the Iranian Foreign ministry called the British ambassador in Tehran to demand answers on why Kenya didn’t acknowledge a message of condolence sent by the Shah.
The Iranians said they were considering sending a second message to Moi on his inauguration, but were not going to do so if the failure to acknowledge the first message was deliberate.
Lingard, the British High Commissioner in Nairobi, telegrammed: “It is not the Kenyan practice to acknowledge any messages of this kind. No informal acknowledgement was received in respect of the message of condolence sent by the Queen or the British government.”
The Shah was overthrown the following year in what is today known as the “1979 Iranian Revolution” and fled to Egypt.
One of the main factors that led to his overthrow was the strong support US and UK gave to his regime.
Khalatbari, the Foreign minister, was executed on April 11, 1979 on claims he was a CIA agent and “for being a member of a government delegation acting against the interests of the people”.
Iran restored its ties with Kenya a couple of years later. In 1983, Kenya’s imports from Iran were $24 million (Ksh2.4 billion) in today's exchange rate), mainly oil, while its exports to Iran were $4 million.
Several deals were signed in 2009, but some never materialised due to US sanctions.