Sudan has been pursuing some eye-catching regional diplomacy in recent weeks. In late-February, Sudan’s ICC-indicted defense minister was in Riyadh, while its oil czar was in Tehran. These visits followed a meeting between Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the sidelines of an Organization of Islamic Cooperation meeting in Cairo in January, and Bashir’s attendance at the Arab Economic Development Summit in Riyadh earlier in February. Combined, the moves suggest a shift in Sudan’s tactical approach to relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran, one guided by Khartoum’s pragmatic concerns for regime survival.
Sudan has had difficult relations with the Middle East since the National Islamic Front (NIF) seized power in 1989, and Khartoum’s adventurist pan-Islamist foreign policy in the early 1990s subsequently deepened its regional isolation. Under the National Congress party (NCP), as the NIF renamed itself in the late-1990s, Sudan adopted a more moderate, reactive style of diplomacy underpinned by successful petro-partnerships with China, Malaysia and India. Today, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring and South Sudan’s secession, the NCP faces very different circumstances.
Sudan’s relations with Iran have long been prominent in regional politics. The military-strategic alliance between the internationally isolated regimes in Khartoum and Tehran has been sharpened by Sudan’s long-standing proxy position in Israel-Iran relations, rendered visible by an apparent Israeli air strike on a military factory in Khartoum in October 2012. Port calls by the Iranian navy at Port Sudan shortly afterward provoked further concern, including in Washington and Riyadh. More than military links, however, Sudan has also been actively soliciting economic assistance from Iran: Sudanese Petroleum Minister Awad al-Jaz was accompanied by the agriculture minister during his February trip to Tehran, for example.