Sudan Believed to Play Key Role in Iranian Efforts to Deliver Weapons to Hamas
Reports that Israel may have carried out an air attack on an Iranian weapons convoy in the Sudanese desert 2.5 months ago have drawn attention to an alleged Iranian arms smuggling network in Africa. Sudan is believed to be playing a key role in Iranian efforts to deliver weapons to militant Hamas fighters in Gaza.
Israeli officials have refused to confirm or deny reports that their fighter bombers, backed by unmanned drones, carried out the attack in Sudan in January as Israeli forces and Hamas engaged in pitch battles in Gaza.
U.S. news reports, quoting unnamed U.S. and Israeli sources, say the air strikes targeted a convoy of arms-laden trucks traveling in the eastern part of Sudan near the Egyptian border. The remote, underdeveloped area is home to nomadic Bedouins and is a well known route for smugglers.
Reva Bhalla, Director of Analysis at Stratfor Global Intelligence Company in the United States, says it is not clear whether Israel has targeted such convoys before in Sudan. But she says Iran has been smuggling weapons from Sudan into Egypt for quite some time.
"It is a very practical supply route for the Iranians to use," said Reva Bhalla. "The arms market in Sudan is thriving and acts as a very easy way for Iran to send agents, mainly through Hezbollah, to come under false passports into Sudan, buy those arms, and transport them primarily via trucks across Sudan and into the Sinai Peninsula, where they can pay off local Bedouins with all sorts of things to get those arms into the Hamas underground tunnel network into Gaza."
Arms researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Pieter Wezeman, says Sudan is awash in arms from Iran.
"For example, weapons have been sighted during military parades," said Pieter Wezeman. "They clearly are Iranian-produced weapons. The quantities involved and also the time involved are very difficult to find information about. But it seems over the past 10 years, Iran has supplied a constant supply of weapons to Sudan."
Another report released by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy last month says Iran may also be sending arms overland to Egypt through a variety of routes in Yemen, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and South Africa. The authors say the shipments are gathered in Sudan and then moved through the Sinai Peninsula into Gaza.
Omar Hassan el-Bashir's Cooperation with Iran no Secret to West
If the Khartoum government of President Omar Hassan el-Bashir is cooperating with Tehran, it comes as little surprise to the West. Sudan has had close relations with Iran since 1989, when a military coup brought el-Bashir to power.
At the time, Iran was emerging from an eight-year war with neighboring Iraq and was looking for allies in the Sunni Muslim-Arab world. Many analysts believe the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps played a major role in helping el-Bashir consolidate power by training and giving logistical support to the new Sudanese army.
Reva Bhalla says the Sunni Arab-dominated Sudanese government and Iran's Shi'ite government have maintained close ties because they are focused on a shared anti-U.S./anti-Israel agenda, not on their sectarian differences. She notes that Sudan is part of a wider pro-Iranian regional alliance, which includes Syria, Qatar, and militant Islamic groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Islamic Jihad, and Hamas.
"Iran loves to flaunt its ability to reach out to Sunni Arab powers in this region to show that it does not have to be limited to its Persian Shi'ite identity - that it has the Islamist leverage to reach out far beyond its border and exert its influence elsewhere," she said. "That is why we see, despite Iran being a Shi'ite power, it has very close ties to Hamas, a radical Sunni power. And that very much alarms the Sunni-Arab powers in the region, most notably the Egyptians and the Saudis, who all have an interest in keeping Hamas contained and the Iranians at bay."
At the annual Arab League summit in Qatar this week, Arab leaders, except Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak who did not attend, united behind President el-Bashir by rejecting the decision of the International Criminal Court to indict the Sudanese leader over alleged war crimes in Darfur. An international warrant was issued for el-Bashir's arrest in early March.
Analysts speculate that some Arab powers, concerned about the rising clout of Iran in the region, may now urge President al-Bashir to distance himself from Tehran in exchange for their support in fighting the indictment.
Helmoed Heitman with Jane's Defence Weekly magazine says he believes the Israeli air strike on Sudanese soil may cause the government in Khartoum to move even closer to Tehran. Heitman says there are rumors circulating in Sudan that intelligence sources in Egypt had leaked the information about the weapons convoy to Israel.
"I suspect it is going to make them paranoid about who leaked the movement of the stuff through their territory and possibly trigger greater hostility between Sudan and Egypt," said Helmoed Heitman.
On Wednesday, President el-Bashir arrived in Saudi Arabia from Qatar, marking the 5th state visit he has made since the international warrant for his arrest was issued.