Why Sudan's army is pivoting towards Iran
Marking the first such high-level diplomatic visit in seven years, Sudan’s acting foreign minister Ali Al Sadiq travelled to Tehran in early February to meet with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and his counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian.
The visit was the latest sign of rapidly warming relations between Khartoum and Tehran as the African nation remains embroiled in a fierce civil war.
Following their meeting, Raisi expressed Iran’s support for a strong government in Sudan and for the preservation of its territorial integrity, according to the news agency IRNA. Amir-Abdollahian in turn praised plans to reopen embassies and said that Tehran stands ready to share its expertise in fields such as industry, engineering, and technology.
Sudan and Iran agreed to re-establish diplomatic relations last October following a series of high-level communications between the two countries. Three months before that announcement, Al Sadiq and Amir-Abdollahian had met in the Azerbaijan capital of Baku in the first such high-level public meeting since 2016.
Al Sadiq also met last January with Iranian First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber on the sidelines of a summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Uganda.
"One of the main reasons considered to have prompted the Sudanese army to re-establish relations with Iran is its intention to get military assistance at a time when its forces have suffered major setbacks against the RSF"
Sudan cut diplomatic ties with Iran in 2016 following an assault on the embassy of Saudi Arabia in Tehran that was prompted by the execution of a prominent Shia cleric by the Saudi authorities. The attack also led to a breakdown in Iranian-Saudi relations.
Sudan and Iran had maintained strong relations since the 1990s when they grew closer following Khartoum’s support for Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, which distanced it from the Gulf states. For years Tehran, which also found itself internationally isolated, supplied arms to Sudan and reportedly assisted in the development of its arms industry.
“During the nineties, the development of bilateral ties allowed Iran to emerge from its diplomatic isolation and find a strategic ally in the Arab world and in the key region of the Horn of Africa,” said Pierre Pahlavi, an expert on Iranian foreign policy and Teheran’s asymmetrical and hybrid strategies at the Canadian Forces College (CFC) in Toronto.
“During this period, the Iranian Republic provided substantial financial and military assistance to the Sudanese government,” he told The New Arab.
By the time relations between the two broke down in 2016, Khartoum had already begun to swing towards the Saudi orbit, including by deploying troops to Yemen to fight the Houthi movement. Many interpreted this shift as an attempt to attract Saudi investment.
Yet the restoration of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran last March under Chinese mediation opened the door for other Arab countries to follow suit.
And it came at a time when Sudan was on the verge of descending into the depths of a civil war between the regular army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF).
Weapons and ideology
One of the main reasons considered to have prompted the Sudanese army to re-establish relations with Iran is its intention to get military assistance at a time when its forces have suffered major setbacks in recent months against the RSF on multiple strategic fronts, including in Nyala and Wad Madani, the country’s two largest cities after Khartoum.
“Militarily, [SAF commander and Sudan’s president Abdel Fattah] Al Burhan has been looking for precision weaponry to attack RSF positions and mobile forces,” Jihad Mashamoun, a researcher and a political analyst on Sudanese affairs, told TNA.
One of the most coveted supplies for the Sudanese military are Iranian combat drones, such as the popular Mohajer-6. Some of these UAVs have already been shipped to Sudan, senior Western officials have told Bloomberg, and have been employed by the SAF. The RSF has claimed to have shot down at least three such drones in Greater Khartoum.
Wim Zwijnenburg, an expert in emerging military technologies, said the presence of Iranian drones in Sudan has been documented from at least 2008, but he stated that since the beginning of the current civil war at least two have been identified, both in January.
“Though the low numbers of drones sent - at least two - would not mean a big difference, the export indicates both a political interest from Iran to engage with Sudan, and a perceived need by the SAF to strengthen their capacity of drones,” said Zwijnenburg, also the humanitarian disarmament project leader for the Dutch peace organisation PAX.
Since early December an Iranian cargo plane owned by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has made several trips between airports in southern Iran and eastern Sudan to areas controlled by the army, as identified by Sudan War Monitor based on flight-tracking data. The aircraft was photographed in Port Sudan on one occasion, but the date is unknown.
The same plane has also travelled to Oman roughly coinciding with flights there coming from eastern Sudan, and is believed to be carrying weapons for the SAF. The aircraft has previously sent weapons, including Muhajer-6, to other countries, including Ethiopia.
"On the diplomatic front, re-emerging relations between Sudan and Iran are also seen as a result of the deep crisis between the SAF and the UAE"
The implications that this so far limited flow of Iranian weapons and drones to the military could have for the future of the war in Sudan remains to be seen.
Military analysts widely believe that such assistance cannot be scaled up in the short term to levels large enough to tip the balance of the war in the SAF’s favour, especially because the army’s shortfalls go far beyond the arsenal at its disposal.
Yet this aid could allow them to strategically hit the RSF, including its supply lines, and reinforce its own offensives, which could at least halt the crumbling of the SAF in recent months, shore up their position, and put them in a more comfortable place to negotiate.
“So far, this presence of armed drones is not likely to make a huge difference, but it has bolstered SAF military capabilities,” Zwijnenburg told TNA.
“The RSF also has MANPADS [Man-Portable Air-Defence Systems] capable of shooting these drones, which makes it risky for SAF,” he added. But “at least [they] give the SAF more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance options, and the ability to strike”.
During his trip to Iran, Al Sadiq visited the Iran House of Innovation and Technology, an agency dedicated to the promotion of Iranian exports, and discussed with its director Amirhossein Mirabadi avenues of cooperation in the fields of science and technology. The IHIT has been involved in promoting, among other products, drones for civilian use.
These developments come at a time when the SAF has been conducting a major offensive in Khartoum’s twin city of Omdurman in recent weeks to break the siege on a pocket of their forces besieged for months in the heart of the city. And for the first time since the outbreak of the war, they have achieved slow but significant advances.
Besides military support, the rapprochement with Iran is also interpreted as a sign of the growing influence of Islamist sectors loyal to the former regime of Omar Al Bashir, which have traditionally maintained the strongest ties with Tehran and are still believed to retain a great deal of leverage within both senior ranks of the SAF and the foreign ministry.
“On the ideological level, going to Iran seems to be natural because if you look at it, Iran was the former regime’s ally in the region,” Mashamoun noted.
The warming of ties with Iran is causing some concern because it comes amidst the rapid re-emergence of Islamist militias and military battalions affiliated with or in the orbit of the SAF in army-controlled areas of Sudan.
During Bashir’s reign, advisers from the Iranian army and the Revolutionary Guard had reportedly been sent to Sudan to assist in the organisation and training of paramilitary forces loyal to the regime, although nothing similar has been documented so far.
On the diplomatic front, re-emerging relations between Sudan and Iran are also seen as a result of the deep crisis between the SAF and the UAE, which has been providing military and political support to the RSF according to claims by the Sudanese military and evidence gathered by the media and a group of UN experts. Abu Dhabi denies this.
The move also came against a more conducive regional context. “Al Burhan reestablished relations with Iran after Iran improved relations with Saudi Arabia,” Mashamoun said.
Rashid Abdi, a Horn of Africa and Middle East analyst with Sahan Research and the Rift Valley Institute, recently noted on X that more significant than Iran’s arms shipments to the SAF is the fact that Tehran uses Saudi airspace to do it, flight-tracking data shows.
For Iran, one of the main interests in restoring relations with Sudan and regaining some of its influence in the country is considered to be its strategic access to the Red Sea, coveted by multiple regional and international powers.
"Al Burhan and his allies from the former regime are saying to the US and their allies that they are not the only ones in town"
“[Having] access to eastern Sudan and, above all, to Port Sudan, its de facto capital city, provides Iran with a considerable channel of influence,” Pahlavi said. “Through this strategic position and nearly 700 km of maritime borders, Iran gains a considerable asset.”
The implications of Khartoum’s change of diplomatic course were also quickly evident in relation to Palestine.
During Al-Sadiq’s visit to Iran, President Raisi also took the opportunity to condemn the move by some countries to normalise diplomatic relations with Israel in recent years, according to state agencies, in a veiled reference to the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco.
The Sudanese acting foreign minister in turn condemned the Israeli military offensive in Gaza and reiterated Khartoum’s support for the Palestinian people.
Sudan’s adoption of a more vocal stance in solidarity with Palestine comes despite the fact that in early 2021 Khartoum also agreed to begin normalising relations with Tel Aviv, following a surprise meeting between Sudan’s army commander Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Israel’s president Benjamin Netanyahu in Uganda the previous year.
The move, which was mainly driven by Sudanese security and military officials, came after the US blackmailed Khartoum and made Sudan’s removal from its list of ‘state sponsors of terrorism’ conditional on the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel.
As recently as early 2023, then Israeli foreign minister Eli Cohen travelled to Khartoum in the first publicly acknowledged such visit. During the visit, Cohen met with Al Sadiq.
Khartoum’s tilt towards Tehran could also have implications for its relationship with the West.
“Western countries are not particularly favourable towards an RSF victory; but at the same time, the SAF has to earn the support of outside countries. And this is not going to earn it any support from any Western state or even Gulf Arab state,” Cameron Hudson, an expert on Sudan at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told TNA.
“I think that, in its effort to break [its] isolation, the SAF will ultimately make itself more isolated, not less,” Hudson, also a former CIA analyst on Sudan, added.
Mashamoun instead believes that pivoting towards Tehran can also be a way for the SAF to put pressure on Washington.
“Al Burhan and his allies from the former regime are saying to the US and their allies that they are not the only ones in town,” he said. “They want to force the US and its allies in the West to pressure the regional countries that are supporting [the RSF].”
Marc Español is a Catalan journalist based in Cairo.
Follow him on Twitter: @mespanolescofet