When Khartoum turns away from Tehran

When Khartoum turns away from Tehran
Relations between Sudan and Iran are turning frosty, with Iranian centres shuttered in Sudan’s capital.
6 min read
15 Sep, 2014
When relations were better [Getty]

Being a politician means being pragmatic, and perhaps this is why politics has been called “the art of the possible”. However, the common use of the word “pragmatism” is associated with opportunism and an absolute lack of principles. Khartoum’s recent decision to close down Iranian cultural centres and expel their employees certainly falls under the new rubric of political pragmatism.


Iranian cultural centres in Sudan were closed down ostensibly because they “promoted Shiism” and threated the country’s “intellectual security”. Their employees, including Iran’s cultural attaché to the country, were given 72 hours to leave Sudan. The Sudanese government has known since the first centre opened in 1988 that its aim was to promote Shiism. What, then, led to this sudden decision?


The first Iranian cultural centre in Sudan was established during the rule of Sadiq al-Mahdi. Its opening marked an unprecedented development in Iranian-Sudanese relations. The establishment of a cultural centre in another country indicates a favourable diplomatic relationship between the two. However, the activities of the Iranian cultural mission in Sudan did not stop at what was dictated by diplomatic norms, and the Sudanese government knew that.


     The Sudanese government has known since the first centre opened  that its aim was to promote Shiism. What led to this sudden decision?

Iran’s cultural mission in Sudan carried out its missionary work with a political aim, promoting Shia Islam. But decades later, the Sudanese government suddenly noticed the activities of Iranian cultural centres exceeded diplomatic norms, even claiming that they threatened the country’s social integrity. Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Marzia Afkham responded, saying the activities of Iranian cultural centres in Sudan were carried out in accordance with official bilateral agreements and Sudanese law.


Alienating the Gulf


In his term as prime minister in Sudan’s third democratic period (1986-1989), Sadiq al-Mahdi visited Tehran a few times to study the example of Iran’s revolution. At the time, the Iraq-Iran war was at its peak, and his visit infuriated Gulf countries.


Mahdi attempted to build a bridge with Iran, affirming what he believed was a similarity between Sudanese Mahdavism, embraced by the sect he headed, and the Shia religious concepts that eventually led to the Iranian revolution under Imam al-Khomeini.


The Sudanese Islamists led by Hassan al-Turabi pushed the association with Iran forward to an unprecedented level. They were the first to applaud Khomeini’s revolution in the Arab world, and led mass rallies in the streets of Khartoum in support of the revolution, chanting: “Iran, Iran, everywhere.”


Once they came to power through a military coup in June 1989, they rushed to strengthen relations with Iran. During Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait, they started to express a previously hidden hostility toward Arab Gulf countries and announced their intention to overthrow their rulers. The Sudanese government-run media launched rabid campaigns against the Gulf regimes. The campaigns were depraved and obscene, and they almost ended relations between Sudan and the Gulf states.


Changing tides


Now, suddenly, Sudan’s Islamists have turned against Iran. The economic collapse in Sudan since the country lost its oil revenues after the South’s secession has contributed to a new political environment in Khartoum. The increasing closeness of the relationship between Sudan and Iran also led to declining levels of financial aid from the resource-rich Gulf nations.


Pressure from the Gulf states finally extended to ending all financial transactions with Sudanese banks. And, over the past two weeks, there have been signs of an emerging sectarian conflict in Sudan, in which Shia are involved for the first time. The announcement of the visit of a pivotal figure in Sudan’s emerging Shia community to a famous Sufi area in the Sudanese White Nile state angered the Supreme Sufi Council in Sudan. The Council incited locals to protest against the visit, prompting security authorities to cancel the visit in a bid to avoid violence.


     As Sudanese Islamists expel Iranians, the question remains: what are the limits of the Islamists’ pragmatism?

Sudanese Salafi forces have also spoken out against the spread of Shiism in Sudan. The regime depends on religious conservatives to guarantee its hold on power and receives strong support from Salafis, so it fears alienating them. Perhaps the Sudanese government also feared the increasing power of the Houthis in Yemen, who threatened the Yemeni capital Sanaa itself. The Sudanese government started rethinking its calculations in fear of an armed Shia entity emerging in Sudan.


This comes on top of all of the changes in the political map of the region, the unprecedented confusion of issues, the confrontations between armed Islamists and declining support for the Sudanese leadership.

It seems that making a show of resisting the spread of Shiism in Sudan is the only card the Sudanese regime has left to play. This move could bolster Salafi support of the government, and most Sudanese Sunnis would likely follow. A row with Iran might also boost Sudan’s standing with the Gulf states, reducing pressure on the regime and possibly ending its isolation - perhaps even heralding the return of Gulf financial aid.


Reserving judgement


So far, the Iranian response has been very reserved. Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Marzia Afkham said she was certain the Sudanese government would not let groups who “do not want any good for Iran or Sudan” undermine relations between the two countries, referring to the pressure from Salafi groups amid Sudan’s severe economic difficulties.


Perhaps the statement made by Kamal Omar, political secretary of Hassan al-Turabi’s Popular Congress Party, revived Iran’s hopes of not losing what they had built over decades in Sudan. Omar said his party did not agree with the shuttering of cultural centres because Iranians in Sudan “are not sectarian fanatics”. Freedom of opinion and expression required Iranian cultural centres remain open, and their message resisted through reason, he said. This reflects Turabi’s long-term strategy, which emerged in the 1970s, when relations with Iran were used to promote the Islamist movement inside Sudan and spread it across borders.


Sudanese Islamists and Hamas are the closest Sunni elements to Iran, but the Syrian revolution forced Hamas to distance itself from the Iranian axis, at least in regard to Syria. And now, as Sudanese Islamists expel Iranians, the question remains: what are the limits of the Islamists’ pragmatism? At which point do their tactics end and strategy start? Or does their foggy strategic vision, their over-confidence and extreme Machiavellian tendencies limit them to playing a dangerous game, jumping from one extreme to the other?


This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Al Araby Al Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.