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FILE - Sudan's Army chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan speaks in Khartoum, Sudan, on Dec. 5, 2022. In a rare televised speech Monday, Aug. 14, 2023, the head of Sudan's military accused the rival paramilitary force of committing war crimes as all-out civil war threatens to engulf the northeast African country. Sudan was plunged into chaos in April when months of simmering tensions between the military, led by Gen. Abdel Fattah Burhan, and the Rapid Support Forces, commanded by Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, exploded into open fighting in Khartoum and elsewhere. (AP Photo/Marwan Ali, File)

Iran’s Concerted Efforts to Secure a Foothold in Sudan

Since Sudan’s ongoing civil war erupted in April 2023, the gruesome fighting between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), led by Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (a.k.a. “Hemedti”), has resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and the displacement of more than 10 million people. Doctors Without Borders describes Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, as “partly a ghost town” with a “post-apocalyptic” atmosphere. Fighting also rages in other parts of the country, notably Darfur, where the RSF has committed mass killings in the towns it has captured. While this war grinds on without any signs of either side being on the verge of a decisive victory, further fragmentation and deeper division of Sudan are highly likely outcomes.

This crisis has regionalized and internationalized to a notable degree, bringing in a host of external actors. The RSF has received various forms of support from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and at least some degree of sympathy from certain neighboring African states, all of which have their own interests in empowering Hemedti’s paramilitary group. Egypt has been the SAF’s most important state backer in the Arab world. Russia has been characteristically opportunistic in supporting both sides.

This year, Iran has become one of the outside players to take on somewhat of a significant role in Sudan’s internal conflict. Having renormalized diplomatic relations with Sudan following a seven-year-period of severed relations, Iran is now supporting the SAF-led military regime against the RSF. At the start of this year, reports emerged about the SAF using Iran’s Mohajer and Ababil drones, which the Iranians began transporting to Sudan in late 2023.

During the earlier stages of this conflict, the SAF was fighting the RSF with older drones, which were largely ineffective against RSF militants in Khartoum and other Sudanese cities. With the new Iranian drones, the army has successfully monitored and targeted RSF fighters, to the point where these UAVs are credited with doing much to halt Hemedti’s paramilitary force from making further advances in some parts of Sudan.

Interests Driving Iran’s Sudan Foreign Policy

Several factors explain Iran’s reasons for supporting the SAF in this conflict. Although Sudan is not one of its immediate neighbors, Tehran strengthening its ties with Khartoum should be partly understood within the context of Tehran’s “Neighbors First” foreign policy strategy. Improving relationships with Arab countries previously on negative terms with the Islamic Republic was central to the agenda of the late President Ebrahim Raisi’s administration. It will likely remain a priority for Tehran in this upcoming period. At a time in which Iranian officials do not expect any rapprochement with the West, investing in better relations with countries throughout the wider Arab-Islamic world and Global South is key to Iran’s foreign policy interests.

Iran is particularly interested in Sudan because of its location on the Red Sea, where securing a foothold has been a priority since the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Although the outcome of Sudan’s ongoing war remains unknown, the SAF will probably control a large portion of the country once the dust settles, even if it might not succeed in retaking over all of Sudan. From Iran’s perspective, backing al-Burhan in this conflict can bode positively for a lasting partnership with Khartoum, guaranteeing the Iranians a higher level of clout in the Red Sea.

Under pressure from Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, Sudan distanced itself from Tehran in the 2013-15 period before completely severing relations with Iran in January 2016—a move from which it reaped ample financial reward from the Gulf Arab monarchies. A major reason why Saudi Arabia and the UAE wanted Sudan to abandon its relationship with Tehran pertained to concerns among officials in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi about Iranian influence in the Red Sea—concerns shared by their American and Israeli counterparts. By supporting al-Burhan in this conflict, Iran is seeking to demonstrate to the Sudanese state that even though good relations with Tehran might not pay off financially compared to what Khartoum receives from deep-pocketed GCC states, a partnership with Iran is valuable from a military and defense standpoint. As al-Burhan fights an existential threat, the Sudanese general seeks as much help from anywhere he can obtain it—and those on his side in this conflict will likely remember Iran’s role in helping the SAF. If the Saudi-Iranian détente later derails and Riyadh puts pressure on Khartoum to distance itself from Tehran at some point down the line, such military support from the Islamic Republic amid the ongoing SAF-RSF war could help secure more goodwill for the Iranians among key power brokers within Sudan’s “Deep State”.

Moreover, Iran’s provision of drones to the SAF can advance Tehran’s interests beyond Sudan. If more countries around the world—particularly those under Western pressure and sanctions—see the difference that Iranian UAVs can make in a conflict, there is a high probability that they will then attempt to buy them as well. The record of cheap Iranian UAVs in various conflicts in the Arab world, the 2020-22 Ethiopian war, and the Russian-Ukrainian war already speaks to this type of “drone diplomacy” that is important to the Islamic Republic’s image as a valuable country to work with militarily.

At a time in which the Red Sea, a strategic body of water of immense importance to the global economy, is increasingly relevant due to the ongoing Gaza war’s expansion, Iran seeks to secure greater influence in the Red Sea as a means of countering Israel and its Western backers. Sudan partially joining the Abraham Accords in 2020 is another factor, and Iran will seek to use its clout with al-Burhan to try to pull Khartoum away from the normalization trend and towards a foreign policy more closely aligned with Tehran’s interests.

Ideological Shifts

Throughout much of the rule of Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who gained power in 1989 and served as Sudan’s president from 1993 until his ouster in 2019, the ideological nature of his regime was Islamist. Many historians regard the Sudanese coup of 1989 as the first time that a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government took power in an Arab country. Despite sectarian differences between Sunni-majority Sudan and Shi’a-majority Iran, ideational synergies between the governments in Tehran and Khartoum led to strong Iranian-Sudanese relations in the 1990s and 2000s.

While al-Burhan was primarily responsible for al-Bashir’s overthrow in 2019 following months of a popular grassroots-led uprising against the dictatorship, the general spent most of his career serving al-Bashir’s government. Since the onset of the civil war, al-Bashir loyalists—temporarily sidelined by Sudan’s flirtation with democracy—have returned to positions of power with a significant number of Islamist fighters joining the SAF’s ranks. These Islamists who supported Bashir’s military regime were inclined to see Iran as a country that Sudan should be close to, so it is understandable how their growing clout in Sudan bodes well for Iran’s interests in Khartoum.

The Path Ahead

There is no denying that the SAF is materially benefiting from Sudan’s renormalization of relations with Iran amid this armed conflict. Iran’s drones have played a role in strengthening the army’s position in this crisis. What will be important to observe is how Khartoum-Tehran relations develop after Sudan’s internal conflict is resolved and some form of peace is restored.

Given the extent to which the Sudanese economy has deteriorated 14 months into this conflict, Sudan will be looking for opportunities to strengthen trade relations once the war is over. Sudan was one of Iran’s top trading partners in sub-Saharan Africa during the years prior to the 2016 break, and there is possibly room for these economic ties to resume. Iran may be well-positioned to build on its wartime gains in Sudan once the post-conflict period begins. Yet, how successful Tehran will be in this regard remains to be seen.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Issue: Geopolitics
Country: Iran

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Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. He is also an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Georgetown University, and an Adjunct Fellow at the American Security Project. Mr. Cafiero is a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera, Gulf International Forum, The New Arab, Responsible Statecraft, Stimson Center, and Amwaj.Media. Throughout Mr. Cafiero’s career he has consulted many public and private sector entities, briefed diplomats of various countries on Gulf affairs, and worked as a subject matter expert for multinational law firms. Mr. Cafiero holds an M.A. in International Relations from the University of San Diego.


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