OpinionMiddle East

Iran’s dangerous new terror proxy: Sudan

The Islamic Republic's encirclement of Israel and control of the Red Sea are almost complete.

Sudan flag on a military uniform. Credit: Bumble Dee/Shutterstock.
Sudan flag on a military uniform. Credit: Bumble Dee/Shutterstock.
Peter Hoekstra
Peter Hoekstra
Peter Hoekstra is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute. He was U.S. Ambassador to the Netherlands during the Trump administration, served 18 years in the U.S. House of Representatives representing the Second District of Michigan, and as chairman and ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee.

While the Biden administration is preoccupied with trying to win re-election this November, as well as putting out a series of fires it helped start in Ukraine, the Middle East and the Indo-Pacific, a new area of urgent concern, largely flying under the public’s radar, has been brewing: Iran’s increasing penetration of Sudan.

Pocketing Sudan would provide Iran with more oil, gold and rare minerals, as well as another port on the Red Sea from which to continue blocking maritime commercial passage. Sudan would also provide Iran with proximity to Israel, and serve as an additional launching pad from which to swarm Israel with more lethal drone attacks—at least until its nuclear weapons program is complete.

Iran could also add Sudan to the list of the four other countries it already effectively controls in the region: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

Sudan, with Iran’s backing, would then be well on its way to being another Hamas, Al-Qaeda or Taliban, and spreading its inclinations to the rest of the African continent.

Areej Elhag recently wrote for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy:

“What makes the future in this case darker is Sudan’s history of hosting extremists and jihadists from the far right and far left. During the previous regime, Sudan hosted Osama bin Laden, leader of Al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, and Carlos the Jackal. This warm embrace of violent extremists earned Sudan a spot on the list of state sponsors of terrorism.”

Bloomberg reported on Jan. 24 that Iran has been supplying the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, with military drones—everyone’s new “cheap, instant air force,” more accessible than a real one. Iran has also been teaching the Sudanese how to make them locally.

The SAF, reportedly linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists, is currently embroiled in a civil war.

The Sudanese regime, headed by al-Burhan, is a dictatorial one. It has reportedly committed atrocious crimes against its own population, including bombing entire neighborhoods and killing civilians.

Worse still, this regime signed a strategic agreement with Iran, an enemy of democracy that has been killing and wounding American troops to try to force the United States out of the region.

It is crucial that the United States not comply, as it did in Afghanistan. Whatever modest U.S. force presently in the Middle East sends a strong message that the entire area does not belong to the most aggressive predator.

Both the Iranian and Sudanese regimes, by a security cooperation agreement signed last month, have become an additional threat to Israel, the region and the national security of America and its allies.

The SAF, with Iran’s help, is attempting to defeat the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), headed by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, and apparently not much better. Dagalo, also known as “Hemedti,” appears aligned with Ethiopia, Chad and the Libyan National Army of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar (an ally of Egypt).

The Iranians see the sale of weapons and new economic agreements as initial steps to leverage chaos in the world to enhance its geostrategic aims. That is what it appears to be doing in deepening its ties to Sudan. Reports indicate the extent to which these Iranian activities already are taking place. Iran has also reportedly offered Sudan a “helicopter-carrying warship” in exchange for allowing Tehran to construct a naval base in the country. The request was reportedly turned down, out of fear of the response by Israel and the United States.

After the Biden administration relaxed sanctions, Iran was able to re-energize its treasury. From being cash-strapped, Tehran has bolstered its cash reserves by billions through increased oil sales. It has used these extra funds to help finance the Houthis’ threat to shipping in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden; fund the brutal attack by Hamas against Israel on Oct. 7; fund its own massive drone and missile attacks against Israel on April 14; and fund the ongoing build-up of arms caches by Hezbollah.

Iran now seeks to use its money to buy influence with the Sudanese government as it wages a violent and deadly civil war. Sudan and Iran have a complicated history, but the civil war there has created an opening for Iran to build stronger and closer ties with Sudanese leaders. These efforts could well result in Sudan itself, or groups in the country, becoming the latest proxy for Iran in its efforts to spread conflict and distract the West.

Given Sudan’s strategic location, Iranian efforts to weave the nation into its sphere of influence must be blunted.

In a world seemingly on a hair trigger, it is essential that the United States and our allies in Europe not let the chaos exploding in Eastern Europe and the Middle East spread. The Russia-Ukraine war has strained Western military supply capabilities, revealing shortcomings in the stockpiles and defense industrial base of the West. It also has caused growing divisions in Washington, as was witnessed by the months-long delay in Congress to approve the latest arms package for Ukraine. This same arms package included funding for a key U.S. ally—Israel—in its ongoing war against Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon. The other issue gaining significant attention in the region is the ongoing threat to international shipping posed by the Houthis in Yemen.

There is one constant in all of these areas of unrest: Tehran. Support for armed proxy groups and its provision of weapons to Russia has provided the necessary kindling to fuel conflict across a large chunk of Eurasia.

Curtailing Iran’s malign influence is critical to putting an end to the current conflicts in the Middle East, but it is also imperative that the West wise up and halt the spread of Iranian influence into other areas of the world.

The Iranians evidently see the sale of weapons and new economic agreements as the initial steps to leverage chaos in the world to enhance its geostrategic aims of “exporting the revolution,” becoming the hegemon in the region and displacing the other oil-rich countries and holy sites in the Gulf.

These are dangerous and escalatory steps being taken by Iran to increase its influence and ability to project chaos and terror in the region. The U.S. government has publicly called for a halt to weapons sales to Sudan and added that Sudan faces “a crisis of epic proportions.” Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, noted that the city of El Fasher is “on the precipice of a large-scale massacre.” These official U.S. statements highlight the desperate situation in Sudan today, a situation that is being worsened by and for the benefit of Iran.

The bottom line for America and Europe is that the strategy of engaging and appeasing Iran has failed miserably. Not only is Iran a key supplier to Russia’s war effort in Ukraine, but it also has successfully destabilized the Middle East.

The war that is currently being fought by Iranian proxies has resulted in massive public demonstrations. These seem notably well-organized and well-funded in the United States and Europe by outside agitators who are dedicated to overthrowing America, the rule of law and the West in preference for terrorism and tyranny.

It is therefore doubly important to prevent Iran from extending its chaos and malign influence without delay. Tensions in the Middle East, and the growing pressure to appease terrorists, have also strained the relationship between America and Israel—the two main countries that stand in the way of predatory regimes, such as Iran, Russia and Communist China, from achieving their goals.

Washington cannot allow this chaos to be the opening for Iran to expand its footprint in the Middle East and Africa. The lessons of the past five decades are clear. When Iran sees an opening—an opportunity in chaos—it will seize the initiative and leverage its resources to create more areas of chaos in additional parts of the world to further expand its influence.

The United States and Europe must step up now to counter Iran’s efforts in the Middle East and Sudan.

We cannot allow new “proxies of terror” for Iran.

Originally published by the Gatestone Institute.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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