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Jun 8, 2017 | 09:15 GMT

8 mins read

Sudan's Struggle to Win U.S. Approval

Sudan’s Long Path to Normalization With the United States
(EBRAHIM HAMID/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • In July, the White House will decide whether to relieve several sanctions on Sudan based on an executive order signed by former U.S. President Barack Obama.
  • Sanctions relief would provide incentive for Sudan to continue working to improve human rights issues and solve internal conflicts.
  • Until Sudanese President Omar al Bashir, charged with war crimes by the International Criminal Court, leaves power, the lifting of all sanctions will remain a distant prospect.

Sudan has made some major adjustments to its diplomatic posture over the past year and a half. In that time, the nation abandoned its long-standing relationship with Iran and instead began working closely with Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. This policy shift has earned Sudan both financial gain and a certain amount of diplomatic credit in the Western world. But the real prize for the country would be a normalization of relations with the United States, and there are signs that Sudan may be able to make progress toward that end.

Waiting For a Review

As one of his last acts in office, former U.S. President Barack Obama signed an executive order in January raising the possibility that Washington could lift a limited number of the trade and investment sanctions on Sudan that have been in place for years. The order required that, after a six-month review period, the U.S. government, now led by President Donald Trump, would evaluate Sudan's progress in improving its human rights record.

The results of the review could represent Sudan's greatest step to date in improving its historically fraught relationship with the United States. The stakes are high, as the nation would benefit massively from the trade, military, aid and investment opportunities that come with the lifting of U.S. sanctions. And even though a positive assessment would put Sudan only a few steps onto a very long path toward normalization, a negative decision could very well erase that path completely.

Before June is out, various U.S. agencies and departments will be required to brief Trump on the progress Sudan has made since Obama signed the order. In addition to improving its human rights record, Sudan was also expected to cease hostilities in the nation's many internal conflicts, including Darfur in the west and Kordofan and Blue Nile in the south. If the overall assessment of Sudan's progress is considered satisfactory, and the Trump administration decides to act on Obama's executive order, the United States will relieve some trade and investment sanctions.

But that would still leave Sudan far from a true normalization with the United States. The East African country remains on Washington's list of state sponsors of terrorism, where it has been for 20 years under Sudanese President Omar al Bashir, and Obama's order suggested no change in that status. Additionally, many sanctions, including ones limiting arms exports and potential U.S. aid as well as those specific to the Darfur conflict, would remain.

Breaking Ties With Iran

In the eyes of the United States, Sudan's slate is still far from clear. However, it has made strides to improve its standing with Washington, most notably by breaking off its relationship with Iran in favor of U.S. ally Saudi Arabia.

Sudan was once a loyal Iranian partner. The 1989 coup that brought to power al Bashir — a leader who later earned warrants from the International Criminal Court for charges of crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide — severely damaged Sudan's relationship with the United States. It was natural that Iran, whose 1979 Islamic Revolution put the country in a similarly reviled position, would form a friendship with Sudan. After all, Sudan's geographic position near several Iranian proxies — Gaza, Yemen, Eritrea and Somalia — made it an ideal transit point for smuggling. In exchange for Sudan’s cooperation, Iran provided it with financial and military support, not to mention oil.

Before the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, both pariah states assisted each other with arms smuggling and supporting terrorist groups. In the early 1990s, before the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings made Osama bin Laden the most wanted man in the United States, Sudan hosted the terrorist leader. At the time, bin Laden was believed to be using his business activities in Sudan as a front for establishing the foundations of al Qaeda, particularly its East Africa network, which at one point was one of its most prominent branches.

But after the bombings, Sudan began cooperating with the United States in its counterterrorism efforts, particularly through intelligence sharing. Following the 9/11 attacks, Sudan even conducted its own internal crackdown on radical elements, prompting hard-liners in the country to accuse the government of appeasing the United States.

Then in 2011, following decades of civil war, South Sudan split from Sudan to become its own independent nation, taking many of the nation's oil reserves with it and leaving Sudan in dire financial straits. Sudan's economy struggled, and Saudi Arabia, which had long been making overtures toward Khartoum, stepped in to take advantage. Riyadh poured investment into Sudan, promising more in exchange for military support in its conflict in Yemen. Entering into the Saudi sphere of influence also allowed Sudan to take a step toward a better relationship with the West. By 2016, Sudan had officially severed ties with Iran, and its substantial army had joined the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen.

The United States itself is still considering whether it will play a larger role in the Yemen conflict, though i