Recent geopolitical developments across the Middle East and Africa have added momentum to Iran and Sudan's strategic partnership, an alliance driven primarily by an interest in weakening the power of Israel, and by extension the U.S., throughout East Africa. Other objectives include Sudan's fight against other forces that constitute existential threats to the Khartoum regime and Iran's interest in establishing an alternative weapons corridor to Gaza and Lebanon, particularly given that Syria will likely remain destabilized for the near-to-medium term. However, some of Sudan's traditional Sunni Arab allies staunchly oppose further development of the Iran/Sudan partnership. It remains to be seen how far Khartoum can further entrench its ties with Tehran while maintaining its alliance with Saudi Arabia and other states in the region.
Background of Bilateral Ties
When President Al-Bashir and Hassan Al-Turabi rose to power in the 1989 coup that established an Islamist state in Sudan, one of the new regime's first diplomatic initiatives was to forge an alliance with Iran, whose own Islamic revolution a decade earlier inspired Sudan's Islamists (despite the Sunni-Shia division). Five months after the coup, Bashir paid a visit to Iran and the two states' intelligence agencies signed cooperative agreements.
In 1991, then Iranian President Rafsanjani visited Sudan pledging $17 million in financial aid, delivery of $300 million of Chinese weapons, and one million tons of oil per year. Some 2,000 members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) were reportedly sent to Sudan to train Sudan's Popular Defense Forces (PDF) during the second Sudanese Civil War. That same year, Khartoum hosted the infamous Popular Arab and Islamic Congress (PAIC), which brought together Osama Bin Laden, Abu Nidal, Carlos the Jackal, and members of Jama'at Al-Islamiyah, Hamas, Hezbollah and the IRGC.
Over the years, Iran and Sudan have maintained varying degrees of support for non-state actors, including Hezbollah, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine. In 2008 the two states officially signed a military cooperation agreement and in May of this year the pace and scope of the construction of Iranian naval and logistical bases in Port Sudan was enhanced remarkably. In short, over the past two decades, the two countries have significantly deepened their political ties, and in the process, Sudan has become a magnet for a variety of militant extremist and jihadist individuals and groups.
Proxy War in Africa
Sudan has at the same time become an extension of Iran's proxy war against Israel. Historically, Sudan and Israel's relationship has been hostile. In 2012 Israel bombed Sudan for the fourth time since 2009, striking the Yarmouk factory near Khartoum. Israel's motivation for targeting Sudan was likely to punish Sudan for allowing Iran to use Sudanese territory as a staging ground for arms shipments to Gaza and Lebanon via the Red Sea and Egyptian Sinai, in addition to Khartoum's alleged support for Hamas and other militant Palestinian groups.
Israel knows that Sudan is a failed state with a military that is preoccupied with South Sudan and Darfur, among other concerns, and that Khartoum is not capable of responding directly to Israel. Simply put, Bashir's bluff has been called as a consequence of his inaction to Israel's air raids. Part of Israel's message to Sudan's government appears to be to refrain from forging deeper ties with Iran and Hamas; the more important message relates to Iran: If Tehran uses East Africa as a launching pad for its Palestinian/Lebanese proxies, Israel will apparently strike against Iran's interests in the region.
Moreover, Israel has used its ally South Sudan in an effort to further weaken Khartoum's regional clout. This partnership far precedes Iran and Israel's standoff. During the first Sudanese Civil War (1955-1972), Israel armed and trained the Southern Sudan Liberation Movement (SSLM), which was consistent with the "alliance on the periphery" pillar of Ben-Gurion's foreign policy. After South Sudanese independence in 2011, Juba's diplomatic gestures toward Israel established the world's newest state as a staunch Israeli ally. In March 2012, an Iranian drone was shot down by Juba-backed rebels and the Israelis have sent security experts to South Sudan to train their troops to operate T-72 battle tanks. If Khartoum and Juba wage war over the disputed oil-rich region of Abyei, Iran and Israel may be expected to use their leverage to back their respective sides, further establishing the Sudans as a battleground for one of the Middle East's most dangerous power struggles.
Eritrea is another important piece to this puzzle, as Asmara courts a military partnership with Iran and Israel. From Eritrea's perspective, a potential Ethiopian invasion constitutes the gravest national security threat. To counter this menace, Eritrea signed an agreement with Iran in 2008 that provides the Iranian military a presence in Assab (which for official purposes is to safeguard an oil field). However, for a number of reasons (the most important being to gain greater support from Washington, which holds strong influence over Addis Ababa), Eritrea appears to have sought balance in its partnership with Iran by forming a relationship with Israel. Israeli naval teams have set up in the Dablak Archipelago and Massawa, and have also reportedly established a listening post in Amba Soira to monitor Iran's presence in the country. Israel has a difficult task, as deeper ties with Asmara threaten to undermine its relationship with Addis Ababa. Nonetheless, Israel will likely continue to nurture its partnership with Eritrea as long as it serves to weaken Iran's capacity to use East Africa to expand Tehran's strategic depth.
Given that nearly three-quarters of Sudanese exports reach the Gulf Cooperation Council states, Khartoum is economically dependent on states that would view the growth of Iran's footprint in East Africa as a significant geostrategic setback. As Saudi Arabia and Iran wage a proxy war in Yemen, the build-up of Iran's military presence in the Red Sea is troublesome from the Saudi perspective. Voices within Sudan's opposition have criticized Bashir for permitting Tehran to establish a greater military footprint in their country, on the grounds that Sudanese-GCC ties will suffer and it undermines prospects for any potential rapprochement with the U.S.
From Bashir's perspective, it is reasonable to assume that the most imminent threats to his regime's survival are reduced as a result of the growing partnership with Iran. With Darfur rebels having struck major blows against the Sudanese state earlier this year, and with the conflict with South Sudan likely to linger for years to come, the influx of more advanced weapons and training from Iran should strengthen Khartoum's position.
Bashir has every reason to continue to deepen Sudan's ties to Iran. He knows that Iran is determined to expand its influence in Africa, and that Sudan has a unique role to play in furthering that objective. Thus, with Iran's ongoing battle of words with Israel and the U.S. over Tehran's nuclear program, the continuation of the Syrian crisis - which threatens to break-up the Middle East's "axis of resistance" -- and the tension between Sudan and South Sudan, Iran and Sudan have apparently come to view each other as indispensable strategic partners for the long haul.
This past weekend's news that Zimbabwe has signed a Memorandum of Understanding to sell Iran uranium will certainly raise the stakes in Iran's presumed pursuit of nuclear weapons, and will only serve as an incentive for Sudan to enhance the role it is playing in broadening Iran's pursuit of power and influence in the Middle East and beyond. There is no real incentive for them to change course, nor any meaningful way for other countries to reduce the significance of the impact that relationship has had, and will presumably continue to have, on Africa and the Middle East. As a result, Sudan should be expected to continue to play an indirect and influential role in the unfolding landscape of Africa and the Middle East.
Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions, a cross-border risk advisory firm, and author of the book "Managing Country Risk". Giorgio Cafiero is a research analyst with CRS, based in Washington.
This article was reprinted with permission from the Institute of Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) in Dubai, UAE.