An alleged Israeli air strike in Sudan targeting an arms convoy destined for Hamas sheds light on Iran's long-standing relationship with the regime of Sudanese President Omar al Bashir. That relationship, however, is likely to come under stress as al Bashir's problems pile up.
Mabrouk Mubarak Salim, Minister of State at the Sudanese Ministry of Transport claimed March 26 that the United States killed dozens of people when it allegedly bombed several small trucks carrying weapons in Sudan. CBS News, meanwhile, reported that Israeli aircraft carried out the attack after its intelligence apparatus discovered that the arms were destined for Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert responded "There is no point in elaborating ... Whoever needs to know, knows." The story on what actually occurred is still murky, but the fact that Sudan is cooperating with Iran to smuggle weapons for Hamas, and that Israel is working to cut off those supplies is not surprising. STRATFOR first revealed the Sudan-Egypt-Gaza supply chain during the Israeli offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip on Jan. 3. Egyptian security sources told STRATFOR that Iran dispatches Hezbollah agents traveling with false passports to purchase arms for Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad from the burgeoning arms markets in Sudan. The smugglers then transport the arms with trucks into Egypt's Sinai peninsula. The arms are finally smuggled into Gaza through extensive underground tunnel networks with the help of Bedouins, who are usually paid in cash, Lebanese hashish and light arms, which the Bedouins then sell on the black market. This supply chain is vital to Iran's efforts to support Hamas as an additional lever against Israel, the United States and the Arab states. Iran has had especially good ties with the current Sudanese regime in order to keep this supply chain running. When Sudanese President Omar al Bashir came to power in a military coup in 1989, Tehran was just coming out of a devastating eight-year war with Iraq in which the majority of Arab states (save Syria) supported Baghdad. In the Iranian search for an ally in the Arab world, they found the Islamist al Bashir regime, which shared Iran's radical anti-U.S. and anti-Israeli sentiment. The Sudanese regime's ideologue and top Sudanese Islamist leader Hassan al-Turabi played a key role in cultivating ties between Tehran and Khartoum. The Sudanese military regime needed to consolidate its hold over the country and used Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' assistance, training and logistical support to combat the various rebellions afflicting the regime and win the support of the Islamists. In return, Iran was able to establish an additional outpost in the Arab world where it could run its covert operations with the Palestinians. This close relationship even survived a political fall out between al Bashir and al-Turabi in 1999, which caused a major rift between Sudanese Islamists and the al Bashir regime. Sudan needs to balance between its relations with Iran and the Arab states in order to continue extracting military, political and economic concessions from both sides. While Iran has a need to keep the Sudanese close while the key Arab states, Egypt and Saudi Arabia in particular have a core interest in putting distance between Khartoum and Tehran. Even though Sudan is on the southwestern periphery of Middle East and offers limited value in Iranian efforts to project power into the Arab world, Sudan is still the Islamic Republic's closest Arab ally after the Syrians. The tug-of-war between the Persians and the Arabs over Sudan has come to light most recently when Iran and major Arab powers strongly supported al Bashir following the the international criminal arrest warrant issued for his alleged role in the killings in Sudan's Darfur region. Saudi Arabia allegedly even offered al Bashir exile. Al Bashir now has a lot less room to maneuver in managing these relations, however. The Sudanese leader is simultaneously battling international pressure over Darfur and a number of domestic rebellions. The regime has had a good run with Tehran, but has to be careful not to alienate its neighbor to the north, Egypt, which has become greatly alarmed by Iran's growing support for Hamas and has been a major defender of al Bashir over the International Criminal Court (ICC) tribunal. Now that the Israelis appear to be taking direct action against Sudan, Iran's reliance on its allies in Khartoum to support its Palestinian militancy portfolio is likely to become much more tenuous.