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Mar 3, 2024

Iran's troubling move into Africa — and the war in Sudan you haven't noticed
A proxy war between Iran and the West unfolds in one of Africa's poorest countries — and there's no good outcome


Many Americans may understand that the theocratic regime in Iran has for several decades supported and supplied militant Islamist groups in the Arab world, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza and the Houthis in Yemen.

But very few have noticed that now Iran has moved into Africa, sending military supplies to the Islamist military government in Sudan, now struggling for survival in the face of a powerful militia and civilian movement that, in 2019, started a democratic revolution to end Islamist rule — with the support of the U.S. and the U.N.

After the militias took Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, last April, the Islamist generals moved to Port Sudan on the Red Sea, where Iranian planes loaded with weapons have been landing. That's not far from Yemen, where the pro-Iranian Houthis now control much of the nation and have recently interrupted international sea lanes, resulting in air strikes by U.S. and British planes.

Before the Houthis became a threat to Red Sea security, the Sudanese Islamist government, then on the U.S. list of "terrorist" states, had negotiated with Vladimir Putin's government in Russia, which was eager to establish a military base on the Red Sea. Iran, similarly eager to establish a Red Sea presence, was able to secure visitation rights for its navy vessels at Sudanese ports.

Recent American bombardment of pro-Iranian militias in Yemen, Syria and Iraq, which already seems to risk a wider Middle East war, could lead to efforts to obstruct the developing Iranian threat in Sudan, as well as Iran's recent influence-building efforts in other African countries.

The civil war in Sudan may be the first of its kind in one specific way: Two national armies, the established Sudanese Armed Forces and its auxiliary, known as the Rapid Support Forces, are fighting each other.

Among many historical ironies at work here, the RSF was established by Gen. Omar al-Bashir, the Islamist leader who led a 1989 coup that toppled a democratically-elected government, and then ruled the country for 30 years until the 2019 democratic revolution.

Fearing a potential military coup, al-Bashir adopted the RSF to defend his regime. But the group's leader, Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo (known in Sudan as "Hemedti"), quadrupled his forces within a few years to about 100,000 soldiers, roughly the same as the SAF.

The SAF leader, Gen. Abdul Fattah Burhan, a disciple of al-Bashir, has been reluctant to support the democratic revolution, seemingly to protect the military's extensive investments in the country’s economy, which are said to amount to 80 percent of the total. (A similar pattern pertains among the ruling generals in neighboring Egypt.)

One such investment is an entity called the Defense Industries System, sanctioned last year by the U.S. Treasury Department, which described it as “Sudan’s largest defense enterprise, generating an estimated $2 billion in revenue via hundreds of subsidiaries across various sectors of Sudan’s economy.”

During the current conflict, the RSF militia, while lacking air power, has continued to win battles on the ground in one town after another. It now controls about half the country, in western and central Sudan, and may soon move east toward the Red Sea, where Burhan and the Islamist generals have found refuge.

Hemedti, the RSF leader, has a long history of alleged ethnic cleansing and genocidal violence, both as an SAF ally in the past and now as its opponent. He recently adopted the slogan La lil Kaizan ("no to the Islamists"), and has awkwardly promised to support the goals of the 2019 democratic revolution.

He now sees Iran's military supplies to the Islamist generals not merely as a threat to his forces, but also to neighboring African countries — most with secular civilian governments — that have supported Hemedti's forces against the SAF.  

Last month, the Washington-based Atlantic Council published a report suggesting that Iran was sending its Mohajer-6 unmanned aerial vehicles, better known as drones, to the SAF. Those are the same Iranian drones Russian forces have been using in the Ukraine war. Recent videos on the internet purport to show RSF members with the wreckage of an Iranian drone they shot down.

Iran’s supplies to the Islamist generals in Sudan come as part of a campaign to build influence in other African countries. Last year, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visited numerous several African countries on something of a PR tour. In Kenya, he described Africa as a “continent of opportunities."

In Zimbabwe, he criticized the U.S. for its sanctions against both that nation and Iran. In Uganda, he appeared to endorse that nation's infamous anti-LGBTQ policies, saying that “Western countries try to identify homosexuality as an index of civilization.” 

A 2023 report from Washington's Middle East Institute on “Iran’s renewed Africa policy" detailed the Islamic Republic's expanding intervention in Africa, not only at governmental levels but also through cultural, academic and religious networks.

Iran hopes to "achieve a tenfold increase" in trade with Africa, the report found, largely based on a perception that Western influence (especially American influence) is fading dramatically.

Iran's religious outreach has included peaceful campaigns to build schools and medical clinics, but also military support for Shia Muslim rebels in some West African countries. One prominent example is Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky, leader of an Islamist movement in Nigeria, who spent five years in prison after an armed clash with government forces in 2015.  

Iran’s military aid to Burhan's beleaguered Islamist army in Sudan was also preceded by cultural, academic and religious activities, but more importantly by military training. Thousands of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards went to Sudan to train SAF soldiers, Iran financed Sudan’s purchase of Chinese military aircraft, and Sudanese forces used Iranian planes in the civil war that ultimately led to the creation of the Republic of South Sudan in 2011. 

Iran's involvement in Sudan has meant that although Hemedti's forces now appear to be winning the war against Burhan's army, there is no end in sight.

Iran presumably hopes that if the Islamist generals prevail, the payback will include Iranian access to the Red Sea. If the SAF faces defeat, on the other hand, the troubling question is whether Iran's Revolutionary Guard, or Islamist volunteers from Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, may come to its aid.

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