Monday,27 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1121, 8-14 November
Monday,27 May, 2019
Issue 1121, 8-14 November

Ahram Weekly

Playing with fire

Israel’s bombing of a munitions factory in Sudan last week has raised questions about the country’s intentions towards Iran, writes Ahmed Eleiba

Al-Ahram Weekly

In the wake of the storm surrounding Israel’s bombing of the Yarmouk military production complex in Sudan, the aftershocks of the incident have revealed the extent of Israel’s breach of Sudan’s security under the pretext that Khartoum was cooperating with terrorist groups and raised questions about whether Israel’s willingness to send its warplanes to bomb Sudan could be a dry run for a possible attack on Iran.
The attack also revealed how far Iran is willing to go in playing a prominent regional role, battling Israel in a sphere traditionally outside its immediate area of interest.
It uncovered Egypt’s position regarding the transformations that have taken place in the region and its stance towards the conflicts there, especially since Egypt has been accused of being a crossing point for arms deliveries into the Gaza Strip through tunnels from Sinai.
There has been anger in the government and opposition in Sudan after assertions by the government that Israel was implicated in the attacks 48 hours after they were announced. “This is not the first time that Israel has bombed Sudan in recent years,” Abdu Hamed, a Sudanese political commentator, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“In 2011, Israel attacked Sudan four times.”
Controversy has also erupted in Khartoum over Sudan’s ties with Iran, following Israel’s bombing of the military production complex and the docking of two Iranian warships at Port Sudan on the country’s Red Sea coast.
Reports indicate that the foreign relations division of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) in Sudan failed to respond to a question posed by foreign minister Ali Karti at a news conference on the issue.
Karti had asked whether it was in Sudan’s “strategic interest to move towards boosting ties with the Arab Gulf states in order to guarantee funds, economic assistance and more investment, or to align itself with Iran because of anticipated changes in the Israeli-Iranian conflict in the region that could put Sudan in a vulnerable position if it were forced to participate in any confrontations.”
Two days after this question, two Iranian warships headed to Port Sudan, raising concerns that the Yarmouk plant could also be funded by Iran. Israel refused to respond to the news, instead mobilising a vessel in the Red Sea to follow the same route.
Two days later, the Iranian ships returned to base, as did the Israeli vessel.
Leaked reports about a possible crisis inside the Sudanese regime regarding the country’s ties with Iran have reinforced reports about Tehran’s link to the military factory at Yarmouk.
Sources said that there had been a fierce debate over the issue in a cabinet meeting that took place after the incident, particularly given the continual Israeli breaches of Sudanese security under the pretext of Khartoum’s relationship with Tehran.
Sudanese media reports stated that Tehran had not responded to reports that it aimed to expand its security and military alliance with Khartoum in the Red Sea. There is already a joint defence agreement between Sudan and Iran.
The NCP bloc in the Sudanese parliament questioned Minister of Defence General Abdel-Rehim Hassan in an attempt to hold him responsible for the attack. Sudanese party sources told the Weekly that politicians did not see eye-to-eye on relations with Iran in the light of the crisis that has emerged in Sudan.
“The dilemma has an economic dimension, since Iran’s presence negatively influences the Gulf States, which disapprove of Iranian-Sudanese cooperation,” the sources said. “Some Gulf States such as Qatar have been helping the Khartoum regime, and Iran cannot in the long run play the same role due to its economic situation.”
Ambassador Hussein Haridi, former assistant to the Egyptian foreign minister, told the Weekly that Iran intended to increase its interests in the Nile Basin and Horn of Africa, using Sudan as a base in doing so.
Cooperation between Iran and the regime of President Omar Al-Bashir in Sudan was nothing new, he said, but it had become more public. Israel viewed this cooperation as a possible alliance between what it regards as extremist Islamist regimes, its presence representing a security threat for Israel in the region.
Although US State Department spokesman Mark Toner expressed Washington’s concern about the Iranian vessels being present off the coast of Sudan, he said the reasons for this were unclear. “We are concerned,” Toner said. “But we don’t have any details.”
However, Haridi said that Israel would not have carried out the bombing of Sudan without first receiving the green light from Washington.
This is not the first time that Iranian vessels have arrived at Sudanese ports, but the timing of their arrival requires evaluation. “Since the beginning of 2012, Iran has succeeded in creating a foothold in this region through legal means,” Fathi Al-Marahgi, an expert on Iranian affairs, said.
“The world has been fighting piracy off the coast of Somalia, and since Iran has vessels available it deployed one of three submarines in this direction and succeeded in playing a key role in the Arabian Sea. It also used its presence after a drop in the piracy incidents to patrol the African coast, substituting the submarine for the destroyers Al-Shaheed Naqdi and Kharak.”
“The presence of the destroyers was approved by Sudan and considered as a friendship visit. Iran wants to convey to the US and Israel that it can threaten their interests not only in the Straits of Hormuz, vital for the transport of oil from the Gulf, but also in the Arabian Sea and Africa,” he added.
According to the Sudanese sources, there has been concern not only at government level but also among the opposition and population at the country’s apparently moving closer to Iran. The Yarmouk factory produced weapons used in conflicts in the regions of Kordofan, Darfur and the Blue Nile. “People are paying the price for these ties for no reason,” the sources said.
There was no official statement from Egypt, apart from the comment that Egypt’s sovereignty had not been breached by the Israeli flight to carry out the Yarmouk bombing.
However, Egypt came under diplomatic attack for its allegedly sitting on the fence on the issue, Haridi asking what Cairo’s strategic outlook was on such Israeli operations and what was being done to deal with them. Was Egypt’s leadership turning a blind eye to operations related to the Islamist project in the region at a time when there were deteriorating security conditions in Sinai caused by the presence of smuggled weapons through Sudan, he asked.
“Sudan is part of Egypt’s ‘strategic depth’ and a key member of the Nile Basin countries,” Haridi said. “Our distraction with domestic issues does not justify our failure on these matters, because the challenges are immense and complex. Delaying addressing them will create a crisis in the near future and will also give the impression that there is a structural inconsistency in Egypt’s policies.”
Israel has its eyes set on Africa, and it was party to the crisis between Egypt and Ethiopia on the issue of the River Nile’s water and the dams that the latter country intends to build on the Nile.
Israel is seeking to extend its influence in Africa, and Iran is seeking to create a front to counter this presence, according to brigadier Hussein Hammouda, former director of the Zionist Combat Unit in the now-dissolved Egyptian State Security and the author of a book on the Israeli presence in Africa.
“What has happened was a case of muscle-flexing by Iran and Israel since this region is a sphere of influence for their national interests,” Hammouda said. “What we are concerned about here is that both sides have exposed Egypt to a test balloon in order to measure our reaction to events taking place in a region that is vital to our strategic depth.”

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