A former adviser to Iran’s defense minister denied on Friday that Tehran seeks to turn Sudan into an Iranian military base, but said that the recent docking of two Iranian warships in Port Sudan showed “the Islamic Republic’s power in international waters.”
Amir Mousavi’s comments came as officials in Khartoum denied reports that Sudan had signed a secret agreement with Iran to establish a Red Sea naval base in its territorial waters.
The undersecretary of Sudan’s Foreign Ministry, Rahmatallah Osman, said that as a matter of principle Khartoum does not permit foreign military bases to operate on its territory.
“Iran is no exception,” Osman added, according to reports in the Sudanese press.
The Iranian navy’s 1,400-ton frigate Jamaran and the 4,700- ton support ship Bushehr, docked in Port Sudan a week ago, the second such military maneuver in two months. The warships’ arrival prompted accusations from Sudanese opposition groups that Khartoum had struck a deal with Tehran to establish an Iranian base on the Red Sea, either in Port Sudan or elsewhere.
In an interview with the Iranian Diplomacy website – which is run by Muhammad Sadegh Kharazi, Iran’s former deputy foreign minister and ambassador to France and the UN – Mousavi admitted that military cooperation between the two countries had “been ongoing for decades,” and exists on “various levels including training and military exchanges.”
Mousavi noted that Iran previously dispatched warships to Sudan at the end of October, days after Khartoum accused Israel of carrying out an air strike against the Yarmouk munitions factory in the Sudanese capital.
“This measure shows that Iran stands alongside the Sudanese people and government in their fight against Israeli aggression,” Mousavi said.
Israel has neither confirmed nor denied striking the factory but officials noted that Sudan and Iran are working together to smuggle arms to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip via Egypt.
Mousavi said that with regards to “Israeli aggression,” Tehran is able to provide Khartoum with military assistance, including the capability to “remove weaknesses in its antiaircraft defenses, which weren’t able to prevent Israeli jets entering Sudanese airspace.”
Asked whether Sudan would be a “new battleground” for the conflict between Israel and Iran, Mousavi demurred, saying that Tehran’s growing closeness to Khartoum was only “strategic.”
However, he warned that the ongoing military cooperation between the two states “could be a warning sign” for Israel, particularly because Israel and the US are “continuing to isolate Iran in the region.”
“Iran’s presence in these waters can be a threat to [Israel],” Mousavi added.
The former adviser, who said Sudan is also providing facilities and personnel to help Iran combat Somali pirates operating in the region, denied that Tehran is courting deeper ties with Khartoum in anticipating of losing Syria.
“The government of Syria is still in power,” he explained.
Iran has provided extensive military support to Sudan ever since 1989, when President Omar Bashir, then a brigadier, overthrew the country’s elected government in a bloodless Islamist coup.
Immediately after the coup, Tehran sent weapons and oil supplies to the new Islamist regime along with around 2,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps advisers to train Bashir’s paramilitary Popular Defense Forces, whose doctrine is based on that of the IRGC.
In 1993, Iran provided Sudan with military support in the form of armored cars, heavy artillery and radar equipment.
In March 2008, the two countries signed a military cooperation agreement in which Tehran pledged to train Sudanese military and intelligence officers in Iran.
Bashir has made several visits to Iran, the last in August when Tehran hosted the summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).
Khartoum has also been a staunch supporter of Iran’s nuclear program. In 2006, Bashir became the first foreign head of state to visit Iran after its announcement, in April that year, that it had enriched uranium. During that visit, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Tehran was willing to transfer nuclear technology to “friendly countries.”
While Bashir is willing to openly court deeper ties with Tehran’s mullahs, others in Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party – particularly Sudan’s Foreign Minister Ali Karti – are opposed to the idea.
In November, Karti criticized the government for allowing Iranian warships to dock in Port Sudan, saying that he had not been consulted over the matter.
Karti’s caution stems from concerns that such a move would affect Khartoum’s relations with the Gulf states, on whom it relies for aid. Sudan is struggling to overcome a $38 billion debt, particularly after the secession of oil-rich South Sudan last year and the renewal of US economic sanctions last month.
One of the Gulf states that is closely watching Sudan’s relations with Iran is Kuwait, which has pledged a total of $500 million in aid, $450 million in loans and $50 million in a grant to Sudan. In March, Kuwait signed a second loan agreement worth $85 million to finance two dams in eastern Sudan.
In October, Karti praised the economic and political ties between Sudan and Kuwait.
However, a Friday editorial in Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Qabas warned that Khartoum seemed “indifferent” to the risks posed to its relations with the Gulf states if it continued to “take advantage of Iran’s ‘outstretched hand’ policy.”
While a shared ideology forms the basis of the ties between the two countries, Al-Qabas said, “Some sources say that the main goal of the ‘military industrial’ [relationship] is to secure the supply of Sudanese weapons to Iran should there be a tightening of sanctions or a US military strike, a scenario that Iran has expected for many years, particularly since it embarked on its nuclear program.”