Sudan Plays Both Sides of the Saudi-Iranian Cold War
Khartoum's foreign policy makes little sense — or does it?
It’s a fool’s game to look for anything consistent about Sudan’s foreign relations. The country’s president, Omar Al Bashir, has supported the military aims of both Saudi Arabia and Iran, whose arch-rivalry has gained increasing intensity as Sunni-Shia sectarian violence rises in the Middle East.
In 2013, Chinese shoulder-fired rocket launchers showed up in the hands of Sunni rebels in Syria, but they had not arrived directly from China. They were shipped through Sudan. A year before, Iranian Fajr-5 missiles made their way from Sudan to Hamas in the Palestinian territories.
Contradictory weapons sales to Saudi-backed Islamists and military cooperation with Iran have been fairly evenly spread. Yet, this balancing of opposed allies took an unexpected turn in 2014 when the Sudanese government began fostering more positive relations with Saudi Arabia.
And that doesn’t make any sense. Or does it? According to Amjed Eltayeb, a scientist and political activist who resides in Khartoum, the lack of a coherent strategy reflects the Sudanese regime’s focus on survival at any cost.
“The Sudanese government is facing economic problems since independence with South Sudan, and they are looking for anyone that can provide them with any amount of money,” Eltayeb told War Is Boring.
Iranian analysts have criticized Sudan’s pivot toward Saudi Arabia as brash, while Western analysts have wagered that the realignment is temporary, citing the storied commitments between the Iranian and Sudanese governments.
“There is nothing historical here,” he said. “Bashir is playing games that are bigger than the pacts of Sudan. There is nothing consistent in the external relations of Sudan.”
Above — Sudanese JL-8 light attack aircraft. Eduard Onyshchenko / Wikimedia photo. At top — Sudanese Pres. Omar Al Bashir. Wikimedia photo
Things are never as they seem to appear on the Upper Nile. In August 2013, the minutes from a high-level military-political council meeting between Bashir and his leadership leaked to the press. The meeting revealed not only the regime’s willingness to brutally suppress domestic opposition, but to deceive foreign governments near and far.
In the meeting, generals discussed reneging on security agreements with multiple foreign powers, including the United States. The generals flaunted their ability to use Iran and foreign Islamist proxies as playing cards against their opponents, declaring loyalty to both.
“We will not sacrifice our relations with the Islamists and Iran for a relation with the Saudis and the Gulf States,” Sudanese Lt. Gen. Yahya Kher allegedly said during the meeting.
The leaked meetings illustrated the duplicitous nature of the regime’s affairs, conducted since Bashir’s ascension to power in 1989. Indeed, in the span of roughly 25 years, Bashir has hosted international terrorist masterminds Osama Bin Laden and Carlos the Jackal, backed Saddam Hussein’s 1991 invasion of Kuwait, flooded weapons into several major African war zones and traded intelligence with the CIA.
Khartoum’s actions do not appear ideologically, diplomatically or even strategically consistent. But they do reflect a regime ridden with elite power struggles and focused on day-to-day survival, according to Eltayeb.
There is an assumption in the Western media that the Sudanese government is actually representing some national interests of Sudan, some people’s interests in Sudan, as the state should behave, as any government should be,” Eltayeb said. “This is not true. The only interest that this government serves is the survival of its reign.”
Following the release of the leaked minutes, Sudan and Egypt held security agreement talks, confirming the Janus-headed nature of Bashir’s secret council. The talks between Egyptian Pres. Abdel Fatah El Sisi and Sudan’s Bashir transpired as both nations supported opposing factions in Libya’s post-revolutionary conflict.
Sudanese Su-25 attack planes. Eduard Onyshchenko / Wikimedia photo
These many contradictions has led Arab governments to distrust Bashir. But despite Khartoum’s predictable pattern of being unpredictable, the Saudis appear to be resetting relations and balancing their distrust with economic investments. “Saudi Arabia has been an investor, a big economic asset in the region, especially for Sudan,” Eltayeb adds.
Riyadh recently announced it would fund several large-scale Sudanese development projects, including three dams, a thermal power station and a million acres of farmland.
The other regional Sunni powers, of which Saudi Arabia is the leader, have distrusted Bashir for his fickleness, but have become increasingly accepting of Sudanese efforts to win them over through diplomatic channels. Moreover, the perception of increasing Iranian influence in the Middle East has likely pushed the Saudis and other Sunni monarchies to be more accepting of a less-than-reliable partner.
Meanwhile, Sudan and Iran have a geopolitical arrangement that strengthens both regimes in terms of trade and defense. The two nations have needed one another — Sudan’s Islamic coup of 1989 followed 10 years after Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. Iran needed Sudan as a trading partner, as both nations were internationally isolated by decades of U.S.-led international sanctions.
Iran rewarded Bashir for this cooperation by providing military, scientific and intelligence expertise — including weapons which Khartoum has deployed against internal rebellions and regional rivals. According to Eltayeb, Sudanese-Iranian relations “were mainly an intelligence relationship.”
“The Iranians do not have huge investments in Sudan. The relationship was not really economic, rather it was [for] intelligence. Many Sudanese intelligence officers trained in Iran.”
All gains considered from both sides, Sudan remains the big winner.
Even as Bashir leans toward the Saudis for development money, he still owns the benefits of imported Iranian military and intelligence know-how. “I don’t think these connections [with Iran] are going to end any time soon,” Eltayeb said. “This intelligence relationship is really hard to cut over night. I think it will continue.”
Sudan’s military industries — depicted in a promotional video embedded above — owe their existence in part to Iranian support. These deep ties indicate that the Khartoum-Riyadh honeymoon will not last forever, and that the natural Khartoum-Tehran benefits could bring Bashir back to old trade habits, especially when rebels remain mobilized against Khartoum.
Sudanese objectives, if past patterns are to repeat themselves, will remain securely focused on short-term gains and immediate survival. The context of chaos at the top and bottom of Sudanese politics means that actual policies remain near-indecipherable, with uncertainty and friction as the only real constants.
The build-up of domestic turmoil, compounded by the loss of oil revenue from South Sudan’s independence, has signaled a dire need for reform. Eltayeb lamented the difficulty of change. “Decisions of economic support are actually political decisions. [Economic] problems have become — structurally — problems of the regime.”
Without major political changes, such problems will continue. As will Sudan’s incoherent mess of a foreign policy.