Sudan's Expulsion of an Iranian Diplomat Signals a Strategic Shift

5 MINS READSep 6, 2014 | 13:08 GMT
Sudan: Regime Expels Iranian Diplomat, Signals Turn Toward Sunni Allies
Sudanese President Omar al Bashir (L) welcomes Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi upon his arrival at Khartoum airport for an official visit on June 27.

Sudan's sudden crackdown on Iranian cultural activities in Khartoum, although ostensibly aimed at combatting Shiite evangelism, is likely a response to Egyptian, Saudi and Israeli pressure to inhibit Iranian support for Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip. Sudan has long been a key transit node for Iranian weapon smuggling routes into Gaza, by way of Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. The abrupt move by Khartoum suggests a greater cooperation with Cairo and its Gulf allies, and would also explain Israel's readiness to accept the Gaza truce.

The Sudanese government ordered the shutdown of the Iranian cultural center in Khartoum on Sept. 1, as well as subsidiary offices across the country. The government also requested that Iran's cultural attache and his staff leave Sudan within 72 hours. The Sudanese regime has historically balanced between Tehran and the Sunni powers of Cairo and Riyadh, and has curried favor out of necessity.

Beginning in the late 1980s and intensifying in recent years, Iran has been a useful partner for the regime of Sudanese President Omar al Bashir, providing armaments and funding. In exchange, Khartoum has allowed Tehran to use its territory to transit weapons to Gaza-based Palestinian militant groups. The shutdown of the Iranian cultural center is out of line with this pattern and suggests a shift in Sudanese-Iranian relations.

Officially, Khartoum justified the move by saying that Iranian staff were working to promote Shiite ideology among the majority Sunni population of Sudan, something officials labeled a "social and ideological threat." Khartoum warned Iran in the past that it must cease such activities, especially the practice of allegedly providing cash incentives to Sudanese youth for religious conversion. Senior Iranian officials quickly denied the allegations, but the Sudanese president rejected a request to reverse the decision to expel the cultural attache and staff.

Sudan's Shiite minority, however, does not present a major threat to regime stability. The Shiite community is centered in the capital city and numbers in the low hundreds of thousands out of a national population of 40 million. While the government has expressed concern about a growing Shiite presence, the issue is low on the regime's priority list, outweighed by instability in South Sudan, a struggling energy sector and ongoing financial volatility. Considering the more pressing concerns, and the potential for Iranian help in alleviating them, pressing Iran on the minor issue of Shiite evangelization is not in the Sudanese regime's interest. Stratfor sources also indicate that pro-Shiite activities by the Iranian cultural center and its offices have been ongoing for years. The timing of the expulsion thus remains highly suspicious, hinting that the decision has more to do with regional developments than with domestic concerns.

During the recent combat between Palestinian fighters in the Gaza Strip and the Israeli military, Iran's weapon supply routes into Gaza came under increased regional scrutiny, as did Sudan's role in the smuggling. Iran is interested in keeping lines of supply open and bolstering Hamas' rocket arsenal. Egypt, the Gulf nations and Israel would like to see supplies cut off. A series of meetings in July between Egyptian, Qatari and Sudanese officials signaled an increased regional focus on Iranian military support for the Gaza Strip. It was increasingly clear in the lead-up to the hostilities in Gaza that Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia in particular were keen on reaching a quiet agreement with Khartoum that would limit Iran's ability to re-arm groups such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The expulsion of Iran's cultural attache suggests that Sudan has consented to this deal.

Possible Iranian Weapons-Smuggling Route into Gaza Strip

Israel's acceptance of the permanent Gaza cease-fire supports this conclusion. Demilitarizing the Gaza Strip by disarming Hamas and other militant groups was one of Israel's key demands in negotiations — and the objective of its ground incursion. Notably, the Egyptian-brokered cease-fire agreement that ended Operation Protective Edge did not directly address the issue of preventing Hamas from re-arming. Israel's readiness to accept the agreement suggests that Tel Aviv opted for an unofficial agreement with Sudan to limit the effectiveness of Gaza's smuggling networks. Egypt and its Gulf allies, particularly the Saudis, would almost certainly have been involved in such an agreement: Both have expanded their influence within the Sudanese regime's inner circle and are interested in preventing instability within Egypt and on its borders. The decision to publicly accuse Tehran of meddling in Sudan's internal affairs may signal that pressure from Cairo and Riyadh has succeeded in convincing al Bashir to crack down on the Iranian smuggling nexus.

From the Sudanese regime's perspective, an agreement with Egypt and the Gulf powers could lead to increased access to Saudi financial support and improved Egyptian security cooperation. Nearby Cairo and Riyadh are in a better position to provide this assistance than distant Tehran. This realignment has been building for some time. Egypt attempted to persuade Sudan to support it in opposing Ethiopia's Grand Renaissance Dam project and to prevent spillover of Sudan-based Islamist militants into Egypt. Saudi Arabia, too, wants to safeguard Egyptian stability and counter Iran's growing regional influence. In fact, following the signing of a military defense agreement between Cairo and Khartoum in March, Stratfor's sources indicate that to sweeten the deal Riyadh offered Sudan financial assistance in return for cutting ties with Tehran.

Khartoum is not likely to rapidly shift wholesale into the Egyptian-Saudi camp, though. Instead, it will gradually pull away from Iran as domestic interests increasingly align with regional Sunni powers. In the near term, however, Sudan's quiet crackdown on Iranian arms smuggling alleviates Israeli concerns over the current cease-fire terms by curtailing a key smuggling route. 

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