The Sudan-South Sudan border region is one of Africa’s most persistent trouble-spots.
The Sudanese and South Sudanese governments allegedly support rebel movements that operate on the other country’s territory. The thorny and potentially explosive question of sovereignty over the oil-rich enclave of Abyei’s still hasn’t been resolved, even after South Sudan’s peaceful succession from Sudan in 2011.
Militias run rampant on either side of a disputed border. War is ongoing in South Korodfan and Blue Nile, and the conflict in nearby Darfur displaced over 457,000 people last year — and this is in addition to the devastating civil war in South Sudan that kicked off in late 2013.
The Geneva-based Small Arms Survey has tracked developments in one of the world’s most remote and complex conflict zones through intensive, on-the-ground reporting on the flow of armaments. In a May, 2014 report, SAS traced the origins of arms and ammunition used by the region’s constellation of armed groups.
Much of the weaponry that feeds this mess is Chinese and Sudanese in origin — which is not surprising, considering China’s economic and political interests in an oil-rich part of the world and Sudan’s region-leading domestic arms industry.
But there’s plenty of Iranian weaponry making its way around the conflict area as well, as the map below demonstrates. (SAF refers to the Sudanese Armed Forces. The SPLM-N is an anti-government militia in Sudan whose arsenal largely consists of arms looted from the SAF. The Olony, Athor, and Yau Yau groups are all anti-government militias operating in South Sudan, and there’s evidence that they have received assistance from Sudan as well.)
Most of these weapons were likely in the possession of the regime in Khartoum at some point. As the Small Arms Survey report notes, “Iran’s role in Sudan’s defence industry is primarily ideological.” They are both regimes founded by revolutionary Islamist governments. And they’re both countries under international sanctions, which gives them added incentive to cooperate.
Iran also reaps a strategic dividend from their ties with Sudan. Their warships have docked at Sudan’s Red Sea ports, and the relationship is a rare instance of Iran building close ties with a Sunni Muslim government, or with a state outside of the Middle East.
Recently, Qassem Suleimani, the head of external operations for Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards, explained Iran’s expansionist ambitions and may even have hinted at its relationship with Sudan’s Islamist regime:
General Soleimani: we can see the signs of exporting our revolution to Bahrain,Iraq, Syria, Yemen and north of Africa.
— Rohollah Faghihi (@FaghihiRohollah) February 12, 2015
In return for being an Iranina client, the ever-embattled regime in Khartoum receives crucial Iranian help in setting up and operating its domestic arms capacity. And it gets plenty of weapons, too. The Small Arms Survey sites UN sources that report Iran was responsible for “13 per cent of Khartoum’s self-reported arms imports from 2001 to 2012.”
The SAS report details which of these weapons have made their way to the war-torn border area. Iranian light machine guns, RPG launchers, mortar tubes, and landmines — which are curiously based on Israeli designs according to SAS, meaning that at least some of Iran’s arsenal is reverse-engineered from weapons built by one of Tehran’s chief geopolitical foes — have been found in the region.
And Iran may not have wanted international monitors to know that it was providing certain types of weaponry to Sudan. “Unlike Iranian RPG launchers found in other conflict arenas, these launchers usually do not bear any markings, rendering the origin difficult to ascertain,” the report states. “Since these features are distinctly Iranian, however, the launchers are probably Iranian-produced.”
Then there are the unmanned aerial vehicles. Sudan and Iran signed a military cooperation agreement in 2007 that allowed Khartoum to purchase an unspecified number of Iranian Ababil-3 drones. There’s evidence that 3 to 5 of these drones were used for surveillance in Darfur — a place where the Sudanese regime has committed grave human rights abuses — starting in 2008. Anti-regime fighters also shot down a Sudanese drone with a registration sticker from the “Iran Aviation Manufacturing Ind Co.” in March of 2014, according to the SAS report.
It’s probable that a military with the fairly limited capabilities of Sudan’s required Iranian training and expertise in order to operate its Ababil-3s. Even if it’s less of a factor than in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, Iranian influence in Sudan is still helping to drive a hugely destructive network of conflicts.