Sudan's longtime ties to Iran — and the two nations' roles in arming Islamic militants — have come under scrutiny in the wake of an explosion at a Khartoum weapons factory, blamed on an Israeli airstrike, and the dockings of two Iranian warships at a Sudanese port.
Sudanese officials have accused Israel of bombing the Yarmouk military complex Oct. 24. Satellite images of the site suggest that it was hit in an airstrike, according to the Satellite Sentinel Project, a U.S. monitoring group.
Last week, two Iranian warships arrived at Port Sudan. Sudanese and Iranian officials say the ships are on a routine visit.
Israeli officials have neither confirmed nor denied bombing the arms factory Oct. 24. A spokeswoman at the Israeli Embassy in Washington declined to comment.
Israeli officials have accused Sudan of supporting an Iranian-backed network to smuggle arms to Islamic terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon, respectively.
Iran is suspected to have munitions factories in Sudan. Sudanese officials deny any Iranian connection to the Yarmouk arms factory; however, the Iranian reaction to the incident could provide a clue.
"Within hours of the explosions, Iran dispatched military advisers to consult with the government of Sudan about the explosions at the arms plant," said Jonathan Hutson, a spokesman for the Satellite Sentinel Project.
The target at Yarmouk may have been the 40 shipping containers that satellite images show were stacked at the site days before the explosion.
Israeli officials have said in the past that the arms are smuggled from Iran's port of Bandar Abbas to Sudan, north into Egypt and onward through the Sinai Peninsula to militants in the Gaza Strip.
U.S. officials have not come to a similar conclusion about Sudanese compliance.
"I don't think we know enough about the extent to which the Sudanese government is complicit in assisting these smugglers," said a former U.S. official who spoke on background.
"The Israelis feel that they have made a direct connection between weapons from Sudan to weapons in the hands of militants in that area," he added.
TheSatellite Sentinel Project said in its report on the Yarmouk incident that the impact craters were "consistent with craters created by air-delivered munitions."
The report, based on eyewitness accounts and satellite imagery, concluded that "the sky was 'red from fireballs,' and that three fighter jets were 'flying fast around southern Khartoum, to the northwest and northeast,' as a fourth, larger plane flew to the northeast at a much higher altitude."
Emad Altohamy, Sudan's top diplomat in Washington, said there was plenty of evidence, including parts of the missiles that hit the site, to prove that Israel bombed the arms factory.
"We consider this as a terrorist act," Mr. Altohamy said.
"Israel should be held accountable for violation of sovereignty and for provoking international law," he added. "This is not the first time Israel committed such an aggression, but the third time."
Israel has struck before
The former U.S. official said Israel has bombed targets inside Sudan at least six times in the past two years. It has struck Sudanese ships, as well as smuggling routes in the vast desert in Sudan's north.
"They have done it without a lot of public outcry, without any accounting," he said. "Israel has really done this very much under the radar."
Mr. Altohamy insisted that Sudan's relationship with Iran is "very natural" and not directed against any other nation.
Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican, is skeptical.
"Most of the terrorist activity that we are now faced with in the world really came out of Sudan," said Mr. Wolf, a longtime critic of Sudan's president, Lt. Gen. Omar Bashir.
"I would never trust Bashir," he said.
Gen. Bashir has been indicted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes in the western province of Darfur.
Sudan's relationship with Iran goes back more than two decades to a coup in 1989 that brought Gen. Bashir to power. Iran's Revolutionary Guard supplied weapons to Gen. Bashir.
Iran has been one of Sudan's few "stalwart friends," said Jon Temin, director of the Sudan and South Sudan program at the United States Institute of Peace.
Andrew Natsios, a former U.S. special envoy to Sudan, said, "Iran's closest ally is not Syria or Russia, but Sudan."
Predominantly Sunni Muslim Sudan and Shiite Muslim Iran make for strange bedfellows.
But Sudan has forged an enduring alliance with Iran based on a shared Islamist ideology, said Mr. Natsios, an executive professor at the George H.W. Bush School of Government at Texas A&M University.
The U.S. administration is uneasy about the relationship.
"[Sudan has] cooperation with the government of Iran in areas that are benign and areas that concern us," the former U.S. official said.
In the early 1990s, Sudan served as a base for al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and other Islamic terrorist groups.
In 1993, the United States designated Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism and imposed crippling sanctions.
President Obama on Thursday extended by a year a national emergency with respect to Sudan, which was first declared by the Clinton administration in 1997. The "actions and policies of the government of Sudan continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States," Mr. Obama said.
International sanctions on Gen. Bashir's regime have isolated Sudan and forced it to deal with rogue states, the former U.S. official said.
"In many ways, by isolating the government of Khartoum, we have pushed them into dealings with the Iranians because they are not able to transact business in normal markets, especially for defense-sector-related activities," he said.
Bin Laden connection
Osama bin Laden arrived in Sudan at the invitation of Sudanese Islamist leader Hassan al-Turabi. The al Qaeda leader cemented the alliance by marrying Mr. al-Turabi's niece.
"Hassan al-Turabi is revered among the ayatollahs [of Iran]," Mr. Natsios said. "They signed a secret agreement between the intelligence services of both countries to cooperate, there are Iranian munition factories around Khartoum, and they signed a treaty many years ago to allow unlimited access of the Iranian navy to Port Sudan."
The terms of the defense agreement between Sudan and Iran are "quite opaque," said Jonah Leff, project coordinator for the Small Arms Survey's Sudan/South Sudan Project.
Small Arms Survey, an independent research project at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, has documented Iranian weapons used by Sudan's military in the southern border state of South Kordofan and in Darfur. These have included small-arms ammunition, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, mortar bombs and two drones.
"Iran has provided support to Sudan's weapons manufacturing sector, including training and technological support," Mr. Leff said.
Part of this training is provided by Iran's notorious Quds Force, a special military unit tasked with exporting the Iranian revolution.
Sudan, however, is not comfortable with the relationship it has with Iran, the former U.S. official said.
"Our sense has always been that they would prefer to have training, cooperation and assistance from more reputable partners, but they don't have that luxury," he said.
The Sudanese are in a difficult position. While Iran could be fomenting extremism within Sudan, it also is providing Sudan with intelligence training that could be used to combat that extremism, the former U.S. official said.
"Iran is looking to continue to wage its battle against Israel and assist proxies throughout the region to achieve its larger objective," he said. "What Sudan represents is an ability for Iran to project power and influence outside its traditional sphere of influence."
© Copyright 2016 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.