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Iran’s intervention in Sudan’s civil war advances its geopolitical goals − but not without risks

Iran’s role in funding and arming proxy groups in the Middle East has been well documented and has gotten extra attention since the Hamas-led attack in Israel in October 2023. Similarly, Tehran’s arms shipments to Russia are well known and have prompted complaints and sanctions from the West.

But Tehran has received little coverage of its military intervention in another deadly conflict: Sudan’s civil war.

Since that conflict started in April 2023, it has killed at least 13,000 people, injured over 33,000 others and displaced millions more. After years of relative peace, people are once again being massacred in the southern region of Darfur.

In the immediate aftermath of fighting breaking out between two rival factions of Sudan’s military government, Iran limited its involvement to supplying humanitarian aid.

But that policy didn’t last long. Between December 2023 and January 2024, Tehran supplied several Mohajer-6 midrange reconnaissance and combat drones to President Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and his Sudanese Armed Forces, or SAF.

In February, the drones helped the SAF take territory from Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as “Hemedti,” and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, or RSF, during an offensive in the city of Omdurman.

While the conflict in Sudan has gotten less global attention than those in Ukraine and Gaza, it is strategically significant for Tehran. As an expert on Iran’s foreign policy, I see how Tehran is increasingly using involvement in African conflict zones to advance the country’s military, commercial and particularly geopolitical goals. It follows a similar trajectory as Iran’s involvement in Ethiopia during the Tigray war of 2020-22.

Militarily and commercially, drone exports to the SAF have been a continuation of Iran’s actions since the expiration of a U.N. arms embargo against Tehran in October 2020.

Since then, Iran has delivered surveillance and attack drones not only to its quasi- and nonstate proxies and partners in the Middle East – such as Hezbollah, Hamas and the Houthis in Yemen – but also increasingly to states outside the region such as Ethiopia, Russia, Tajikistan and Venezuela.

Iran has done this to project power, strengthen alliances and influence conflicts in the Middle East and other regions. At the same time, it can prove a lucrative source of income for the Iranian economy, as well as a showcase for the country’s technology. While it is difficult to determine the precise revenue Iran has received from military drone exports, the estimated value of the global market in 2022 was US$12.55 billion, a figure expected to reach $14.14 billion in 2023 and $35.60 billion in 2030.

In regards to Sudan, arming the SAF helps both Iran’s wider geopolitical goals and its competition with regional rivals, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel.

Iran-Sudan relations date back to 1989, when Tehran backed the coup led by Omar al-Bashir, who later became the president of Sudan. During the 1990s and 2000s, Iran offered development assistance and military aid to Sudan. It exported tractors there and stationed naval vessels at Sudanese ports in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea.

Along these strategic routes and shipping lanes, Tehran exported oil to African countries and smuggled weapons to regional clients, including the Houthi rebels in Yemen and Palestinian militants in Gaza.

As a fellow so-called rogue state subjected to U.S. sanctions and embargoes, Sudan provided diplomatic support to Tehran throughout the period.

It recognized Iran’s right to pursue a nuclear program and voted against U.N. General Assembly resolutions condemning Tehran’s human rights record. From 1979 to 2021, Sudan ranked as Iran’s third-largest trading partner in Africa and accounted for 3% of its average annual trade with the continent.

But between 2013 and 2016, Iran-Sudan relations suffered a series of severe setbacks. In 2014, Sudan closed Iran’s cultural center and expelled its diplomatic officials for purportedly proselytizing Shiism in a predominantly Sunni country. Two years later, in 2016, it and other countries in the Horn of Africa cut formal ties with Tehran.

These setbacks resulted from Iran disengaging from Sudan and Africa to concentrate on nuclear diplomacy with the United States and other world powers. They also coincided with growing military, diplomatic and economic assistance from Saudi Arabia and the UAE to Sudan and other states in the Horn of Africa in exchange for joining the Saudi-led coalition against the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen.

This assistance was especially enticing to Sudan as it confronted isolation and economic adversity as a result of an International Criminal Court arrest warrant for al-Bashir, the secession of oil-rich South Sudan and the imposition of intensified sanctions by the U.S.

Despite Iran and Sudan subsequently participating in multilateral meetings on agricultural cooperation, the bilateral relations between the countries never fully recovered.

The civil war has provided an opportunity for Iran to correct course with Sudan. Supporting the SAF can help Tehran salvage relations with Sudan while also countering or containing Saudi and Emirate influence in the country and the wider continent.

Tehran aspires to assist al-Burhan and the SAF win the war and take back control of the state.

Giving assistance to the SAF also fits a dynamic that predates the war and again relates to Iran’s battle for influence with Saudi Arabia. In 2019, while Hemedti served alongside al-Burhan in the Transitional Military Council after al-Bashir’s ouster by a coup, he visited Saudi Arabia and pledged support for it against Iran and the Houthis.

Nonetheless, supporting the SAF is not without risks for Iran.

For starters, a victory for al-Burhan and the SAF is far from certain. Since October 2023, the RSF has taken some key states, including the capital of Khartoum and the breadbasket of Gezira. In February 2024, the SAF launched an offensive in Omdurman and made gains there. However, the overall balance may still tilt in the RSF’s favor.

And unlike the wars in Syria and Ukraine, in Sudan, Tehran has found itself in the awkward position of supporting an adversary of Russia, which sponsors the RSF.

And contrary to the Ethiopia conflict, in which Iran supported the government against rebel groups alongside Turkey and the UAE, Tehran and Abu Dhabi are competing for influence in Sudan by backing the SAF and RSF, respectively. Outside the military realm, the UAE has a sizable economic edge over Iran as Sudan’s largest export partner and second largest import partner.

Even if al-Burhan were to emerge victorious, it’s not a given that Iran’s position in Sudan would significantly improve or its influence grow.

Iran is constrained by being a Shiite power; Sudan is a Sunni-majority country. And even before Sudan severed ties with Iran and descended into another civil war, it had long accepted agricultural, commercial, developmental and military assistance from Iran’s regional rivals, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

After Khartoum joined the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, it normalized relations with Tel Aviv through the Abraham Accords in return for diplomatic and economic incentives from the U.S.

Time will tell whether Iran’s military intervention in Sudan marks a turning point in bilateral relations, or whether it’s nothing more than a weapons transfer in another civil conflict fueled by foreign intervention.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit, independent news organization bringing you facts and trustworthy analysis to help you make sense of our complex world. It was written by: Eric Lob, Florida International University

Read more: How Iran selects its supreme leader − a political scientist and Iran expert explains Iran crash: President Raisi’s death leaves Tehran mourning loss of regime loyalist Sudan’s plunge into chaos has geopolitical implications near and far – including for US strategic goals

Eric Lob is affiliated with the Middle East Institute.

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