The Khartoum-Tehran axis

Sudan is a hot spot in the covert war of attrition between Israel and Iran.

sudan protestors 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
sudan protestors 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
The shadow war between Israel and Iran, acquired a new dimension last month, in an unexpected arena. On October 24, a mysterious air attack demolished workshops and stores at a munitions factory in Yarmouk, a suburb of Khartoum, the capital of Sudan.
No one claimed responsibility for the attack but Sudanese cabinet ministers immediately accused the Israel Air Force of bombing the factory.
Israeli officials refused to confirm or deny the reports, creating an aura of ambiguity. But for the Israeli media and commentators it appeared clear, for a variety of historical, military, intelligence and operational reasons, that the Jewish state was indeed behind the attack.
To add drama to the event, two Iranian warships docked at Port Sudan a few days later. Official statements in both Sudan and Iran claimed that the naval visit had been meant to demonstrate the good relations between the two countries and was unrelated to the attack. But clearly the two events are linked. The Iranians arrived on a fact-finding and damage-control mission. And not only them.
A few days later the Israel Navy sent two of its warships, via the Suez Canal, to the Red Sea, sailing along the extensive Sudanese coastline.
Like their Iranian counterparts, Israeli officials explained that the voyage was “routine,” planned weeks in advance and had nothing to do with the recent developments. No one takes this explanation at face value.
Ships, like planes and satellites, are platforms. They can carry all sorts of loads: bombs and missiles but also cameras, sensors and listening devices.
Like aggressive canines, the Israelis and Iranians sniff, bark and sometimes bite each other, with state of the art electronic gadgets extending into sea, land, air and outer space.
The two enemies take their covert war of attrition to battlefields all over the Middle East and beyond. Sudan is just another brick in the wall of animosity.
According to foreign reports, Israeli intelligence agents were behind the assassinations of Iranian scientists and several sabotage attacks on Iranian missile and nuclear sites. Israeli and American cyberwarfare wizards reportedly contaminated Iranian computers and control systems, which damaged thousands of centrifuges that may enable Tehran to produce weapons-grade nuclear material. These and other unreported operations slowed down the pace of Iran’s nuclear program by a couple of years, but did not stop it.
Iran retaliated directly, or via its Hizballah proxy, by plotting to assassinate Israeli diplomats and bomb its embassies in Azerbaijan, Georgia, India, Thailand, Egypt, West African and Bulgaria. Most of these plots were foiled, yet one resulted in the killings of Israeli tourists in Burgos, Bulgaria and the injury of the wife of an Israeli diplomat in New Delhi.
Sudan is not terra incognita for Israel.
Because of its location, the country has always been a place of interest for Israeli strategic planners. It is located on a crossroad between North Africa and the Horn of Africa.
It overlooks the sea lanes leading to the Gulf of Eilat (Aqaba) and the Indian Ocean. And most importantly it borders with Egypt, the largest and most important Arab country, which until the peace treaty of 1979 was Israel’s bitter enemy.
No wonder therefore that Israeli intelligence and military personnel have been covertly involved in Sudanese affairs. In the 60s and 70s, Mossad operatives and agricultural advisors were sent to help the Christian and animist rebels of South Sudan who were fighting the predominantly Muslim central government in Khartoum. The Israel Air Force parachuted military and medical supplies into south Sudan. Rebel officers were brought to Israeli for military training. The years-long investment paid off. Nowadays, South Sudan is an independent state and has diplomatic relations with Israel.
Another important chapter in the Israeli- Sudanese history is humanitarian in nature. In the 1970s and 80s Mossad agents organized, on Sudanese soil, the secret aliya of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. At a certain stage, these missions were tacitly approved by Sudanese President General Gaafar Nimeiry and his top security chief General Umar Abu Taib.
Both also met secretly in 1981, in Kenya, a staunch ally of Israel in the region, with Defense Minister Ariel Sharon. As a reward for their cooperation, the two top Sudanese leaders were handsomely paid by Israel and the Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish- American welfare organization. Dozens of millions of US dollars were deposited into their secret bank accounts.
But in the second half of the 80s relations between the two countries deteriorated.
Nimeiry and his regime, accused of collaborating with Israel, were toppled and, by 1989, replaced by a new military dictator – General Omar al-Bashir, who still rules the country. Bashir strengthened Sudan as a Muslim theocracy. Brutally fighting civil wars in south Sudan and Darfur, Bashir was accused of genocide and branded by the UN and an International Tribunal as a war criminal.
International sanctions were imposed on Sudan and it became a pariah state, hosting master terrorists such as “Carlos the Jackal” (Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, who was later betrayed by the regime and “sold” to France) and Osama Bin Laden. In 1998, the US obliterated with cruise missiles a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory, partly owned by the Saudi terrorist-millionaire. The factory was believed to be producing the deadly nerve agent VX.
Isolated, Sudan searched for support and friends and found them in Iran. Over the last decade, Iran has supplied Sudan with oil and financial assistance. In return Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps were allowed to use Sudan as a launching pad to stir up trouble in pro-Western neighboring countries such as Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia. Yet, this was not sufficient to satisfy the Iranian appetite to extend its sphere of influence.
In March 2008, the two countries signed a defense agreement. The Israeli and American intelligence communities monitored with growing concern the establishment of secret Iranian bases in Sudan. The Revolutionary Guards harbored and trained terrorists, and built depots such as the one bombed last month, with its stores of rockets and missiles.
Israeli sources were concerned that Sudan would became a junction for transporting Iranian weapons, mainly Grad and Katyusha rockets and anti-aircraft missiles via Egypt to Sinai and through the underground tunnels to Gaza’s Hamas and Islamic Jihad terror groups.
Some of these rockets are used to shell towns and rural communities in southern Israel.
After collecting solid intelligence, Israeli military forces reportedly started four years ago to disrupt the Iranian-Sudanese lines of supply. Boats smuggling weapons were hit from air and sea in Sudanese territorial waters.
Land convoys were attacked and key figures – local Sudanese and Hamas operatives – in the supply chain were targeted. Israel has never taken responsibility for these operations.
But what made the October attack distinct from the previous ones is its magnitude and range. According to foreign reports, the bombed factory was the largest target ever attacked by Israel in Sudan; at least eight airplanes took part in the mission.
Some commentators noted that the range – it’s 2,000 kilometers from Jerusalem to Khartoum – is even further than between Jerusalem and Tehran. For them, the attack was a type of rehearsal for the “real thing”: an Israeli air assault on Iran’s nuclear sites.
However, it would be wrong to draw any conclusions from the raid in Sudan regarding a possible Israeli attack on Iran. Sudan was an easy target. To navigate there over the Red Sea without being detected was a relatively easy task. Sudan’s air defenses are weak. And the risk involved was low. Even if Sudan had contemplated retaliating (and it apparently did not), its poor military forces are no match for the mighty IDF.
An attack on Iran would be completely a different fire-ball game.
Yossi Melman is a commentator on security and intelligence matters for Walla, a Hebrew news website, and co-author of the recently published "Spies against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret wars," Levant Books, NY.