Did the truck convoy making its way from Port Sudan to Egypt carry weapons from Iran, China or Russia - Sudan's three major arms suppliers? The prime suspect is Iran, which has been strengthening its ties with Sudan ever since President Omar Hassan al-Bashir took power in a military coup in 1989.
Iranian Defense Minister Mustafa Muhammad Najar visited Sudan this month and signed a series of military cooperation agreements. Among other things, Iran's army will now train Sudanese military cadets and Iran will provide Sudan with advanced weapons. In 2006, Bashir visited Iran, declared the friendship between the two states strong and said Sudan's army was "willing to put itself at the disposal of Iranian instructors."
Arab sources report that Sudan allows Hezbollah to operate in its territory, including by purchasing arms both for the organization's own use and for Hamas. Since some areas of Sudan are not under the central government's control, international terror organizations see it as a convenient playground.
Sudan is one of the poorest countries in the world, with an average per capita income of about $200. Its legal system is based on Islamic religious law. However, it maintains relatively good ties with the American intelligence community. Sudan hosted Osama Bin Laden for years, until he left it in 1996 for Afghanistan. But after the September 11 attacks, Khartoum offered to cooperate with the United States and allowed CIA agents to operate in its territory.
In exchange, then-president George Bush lifted many of the sanctions that had been imposed on Sudan and praised the intelligence cooperation with Khartoum. Some of the sanctions were reimposed in 2004, following the outbreak of the war in Darfur. But the U.S. is maintaining its diplomatic ties with Sudan to preserve the reconciliation agreement between north and south, for which Sudan won U.S. assistance worth $360 million.
In 1995, after an assassination attempt on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak while he was visiting Addis Ababa, Mubarak accused Sudan of responsibility for the attack and urged the Sudanese people to topple the regime. Egypt also gave asylum to former Sudanese president Jaffer Numeiri until Bashir permitted his return.
Egypt is nevertheless careful to maintain correct relations with Sudan, to ensure that it does not damage the Nile, Egypt's life source, and that the peace agreement between northern and southern Sudan does not damage Egypt's interests. Yet Cairo is also watching the increasingly close relationship between Iran and Sudan with alarm, seeing it as a threat.
The International Criminal Court recently issued a warrant for Bashir's arrest on charges of planning and committing genocide. Bashir has thus far scoffed at the warrant, and this week, he visited Mubarak to seek Arab backing against it. Egyptian sources said he also consulted Mubarak about the strike on the arms convoy and sought his help to improve Sudan's relations with Washington.
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