After severing relations with Iran, Sudan completed its first military “symbolic” act regarding the Islamic Republic. The military air drills between Sudan and Tehran’s longtime rival Saudi Arabia concluded. The operations were conducted from 29 March to 12 April in Marawe, north of Sudan’s capital Khartoum. The Saudi Kingdom, came up with the idea of conducting joint air maneuvers through which improving capabilities of air forces of both countries was aimed. Hence the timing of “Blue Shield 1” is important due to the ongoing rifts between Tehran and Riyadh and its allies in the region as well.
Sudan recognizes this operation as an indication of progress in bilateral relations. To Khartoum, military domain helps to increase ties with Saudi Arabia and to improve relations with other Gulf countries. Sudan has already focused on the next phase of joint military exercise with another Gulf country, namely the United Arab Emirates. The military cooperation is crucial due to the fact that it constitutes a component of the rivalry between Tehran and Riyadh outside the Middle East, namely Africa. To paraphrase, Iran and its policies in the region are some of the reasons for this collaboration.
In fact, once Khartoum had close relations with Iran. When their relations were at their peak, Tehran provided Sudan with military and financial support like military training. In the year of 2008 two countries signed a military cooperation agreement. On the Sudanese part of the alliance, it was argued that Sudan provided arms to Hamas and Houthis recognized as allies of Tehran.
Why did then Khartoum decide to breakaway with Tehran and choose Riyadh as a new partner to fill the vacuum? One reason is that Tehran’s several policies are recognized as interference in domestic affairs and as offences against national security like Iran’s policy of spreading Shi’ism in Sudan. Against Tehran’s those attempts Sudan decided to close Iran’s cultural centers.
Secondly, several facts which are not directly related with Sudan alter close relations between two countries. Saudi Arabia’s execution of prominent Shia cleric and activist Nimr al-Nimr led to the eruption of Shia protests in the region. After the attacks on the Kingdom’s diplomatic sites in Tehran and Mashhad, Khartoum decided in 2016 to break its diplomatic ties with Iran. Not only Khartoum but also several states like Djibouti and Somalia decide to cut their diplomatic ties. Earlier, in 2015 Sudan decided to change its positon and be a member of the “Saudi alliance” instead.
Indeed, Sudan’s participation in strikes of the Arab coalition led by Riyadh in Yemen against Houthis supported by Iran is the focal point that indicates “demolition” of Sudanese-Iranian alliance.
Thirdly, apart from security-strategic dimension, economic aspect is another reason to improve relations between Sudan and Saudi Arabia. For instance, Sudan faces economic crisis and Saudi Arabia has huge potential to make investments in the country. In return through its relations with Sudan, the Kingdom wants to diversify its energy resources, to find some alternatives like mining apart from oil.
Lastly, easing of the US sanctions on Sudan is another factor. According to some Saudi officials the Kingdom had an important role in lifting some of the trade sanctions imposed on Sudan. During the sanctions era, cooperation with Iran helped Khartoum to overcome related problems. However, it was Riyadh that affected the process by working to ease sanctions. Furthermore, there have been some reports that Trump administration may permanently lift economic and trade sanctions in coming months. Therefore, instead of cooperating with Riyadh and USA, Khartoum’s any affiliation, collaboration with Iran might disaffect the harmony between the USA, the Kingdom and Sudan on lifting sanctions.
To conclude, Sudan’s cutting ties with Iran questions Tehran’s relations with Africa. Not only affairs regarding national security but also relations with Riyadh have affected Sudanese-Iranian ties. In other words, the Middle East politics can direct Sudan’s foreign policy especially regarding Iran. On the other hand, it is estimated that Tehran will try to find new partners in Africa or focus on improving its current relations with several states like Nigeria.