By Tom Little ,AFP
KHARTOUM, Sudan — Long one of Iran’s few Sunni Arab partners, Sudan has cut ties with Tehran in the latest step in its move toward Saudi Arabia as Khartoum seeks to end its isolation and right its economy. The impoverished east African state followed Riyadh in severing relations with Iran, saying it was responding to attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran after the execution of a Saudi Shiite cleric. But with Khartoum hungry for Saudi investment to boost its battered economy, the move was made for “pragmatic reasons,” said Al-Tayeb Zein al-Abidine, political science professor at Khartoum University. It follows Sudan’s surprise decision in March to send troops to join the Saudi-led coalition against Yemen’s Shiite Huthi rebels. “The government realized it was very isolated, even within the Arab world, and decided to change sides,” Abidine said. President Omar al-Bashir’s 26-year rule has seen Sudan slapped with sanctions over rights abuses and its support for Islamic extremists, including Osama bin Laden. Bashir himself is wanted on war crimes charges related to the insurgency in the western region of Darfur. Ties with the Gulf disintegrated over Khartoum’s support of the 1991 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, leaving Sudan to turn to Iran, also isolated and hit by sanctions. Reports said Tehran supplied Sudan with ammunition and small arms, helping to develop its arms industry.
Iranian warships used to stop over in Port Sudan across the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia. ‘Relationship of convenience’ But it was a “relationship of convenience,” said Magdi El Gizouli, an independent analyst. “I don’t think there’s a strong ideological commitment,” he said.
The partnership soured in September 2014, when Sudanese officials ordered the closure of an Iranian cultural center in Khartoum, accusing its employees of preaching Shiite Islam in majority Sunni Sudan. Observers saw underlying motives. “They closed the centers to give a positive signal to Saudi Arabia,” a diplomatic source in Khartoum told AFP. The closure came with the economy faltering after nearly 20 years of sanctions. When South Sudan became independent in 2011, it took with it three quarters of the country’s oil reserves.