This analysis by Eric Reeve provides a detailed insight into the key decisions of Sudanese regime. It indicates the dependence of President Omar al-Bashir on Iran, based on the leaked minutes of the government’s top military and security officials.
“Sudan, Iran, the Obama Administration, and Khartoum’s Political Vision”
More about what we learn from the leaked minutes of the August 31 meeting bringing together Khartoum’s most senior military and security officials
Eric Reeves, 15 October 2014
The document containing minutes of the 31 August 2014 meeting of the most senior military and security officials of the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party (NCP) (“Minutes of the Military and Security Committee Meeting held in the National Defense College” [Khartoum]) has been assessed at considerable length over the past three weeks. The overwhelming consensus is that the document is authentic and reveals in powerful detail how determined these ruthless men are to hold onto power in Sudan at all costs. I have seen to date no credible account of how such a document could have been fabricated and passed through the channels it has without being detected as a hoax. As one astute and longtime student of Sudan observed to me, “It is hard to believe such a record was made…but even harder to imagine anyone forging it.”
Africa Confidential began its recent brief overview of the issue by observing:
Most of the Sudanese activists and officials (serving or former) that we have contacted believe the leaked reports of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) meeting on 31 August are an authentic account. Indeed, one former official has confirmed the NISS meeting took place and a serving official said the documents were genuine.
And in a different section of the issue:
The first question is whether the minutes are authentic (see Khartoum in fact and fiction). Most of the Sudanese politicians, and serving and former officials that Africa Confidential has spoken to reckon they are and that there have been serious security breaches in Khartoum. (10 October 2014, Vol 55 No 20)
For a more extensive survey of opinion about the authenticity of the document, see this compendium. Absent compelling evidence that the document was forged, there is simply too much within it that demands recognition as the actual thinking and decision-making of the men who now constitute what is essentially a junta in Khartoum, with merely the trappings of civilian rule.
A “Strategic Relationship” with Iran
Moreover, subsequent events have in some cases unfolded as if scripted by the decisions and recommendations recorded at this meeting. For example, President Omar al-Bashir’s trip to Saudi Arabia had less to do with the hajj than with the need to reassure Saudi leaders about the nature of Khartoum’s relationship with Tehran. In an interview with Asharq al-Awsat (11 October 2014) al-Bashir declares that, despite recent tensions in the relationship between Khartoum and Riyadh, this has had nothing to do with Khartoum’s relationship with Tehran, the great regional menace in Saudi eyes:
“There are no strategic ties between [Sudan] and Iran. Our ties with Iran are very normal.”
Desperate for Saudi economic and financial assistance (noted frequently in the leaked document), and given also the repeated references in the leaked document to deceiving the Saudis about the nature of the relationship with Tehran, al-Bashir had no choice but to publicly disavow any strategic relationship with Iran, however unpersuasively.
President and Field Marshal Omar al-Bashir
In fact, however, in a dozen places in the minutes these most senior security, political, and military officials declare just the opposite:
- “In the open let us maintain good relations with the Gulf States, but strategically with Iran and to be managed secretly by the Military Intelligence and the security organs.”
“In my personal view our relation with Iran is a strategic one in the areas of defense and security.”
“…we can improve our relations with the Gulf States [and Saudi Arabia] without affecting our strategic alliance with Iran. (Mustafa Osman Ismail, Political Secretary of the National Congress Party)
[Because a much-improved translation into English of the Arabic will soon be available, I have been more liberal in editorial clarification of the available English translation where there are clearly problems with word choices, idiom, syntax, punctuation, and other grammatical matters. In two places, because of the opacity of the formulation, I have attempted a reconstruction of what seems to be intended; they are not of central importance—ER]
- “My comment is on our relation with Saudi Arabia and the Emirates on one side and Iran on the other side…. Our relation with Iran is strategic.” (Lt.-General Hashim Abdalla Mohammed, Chief of Joint General Staff)
- “Our relation with Iran is strategic.” (Lt.-General Yahya Mohammed Kher, State Minister of Defense)
- “Our relation with Iran is beneficial to us, because Iran is our biggest ally in the region, in terms of the cooperation in the areas of intelligence and military industrial production. This is due to our web-like relations with all the Islamic Movements world-wide. The importance of this relation comes from the fact that we constitute [a connection?] for Iran to all the Islamic groups.” (Lt.-General Siddiig Aamir, Director of Military Intelligence and Security) (I will return in a subsequent analysis to the claim that Khartoum has “… web-like relations with all the Islamic Movements world-wide.”—ER]
- “So let us separate between the two issues, the strategic relation [with Iran] and the Shite Cultural Centers.” [Recently shut down as the regime faced various domestic pressures; the idea of a “separation” of the religious and the strategic is a sentiment shared by several officials at the meeting; Iran is overwhelmingly Shiite and Sudan is overwhelmingly Sunni—ER] (First Lt.-General Mohammed Atta, Director General of the National Intelligence and Security Services)
- “Whatever the case, our relation with Iran is a red line: without the support of Iran, the Ingaz [“National Salvation Revolution,” the name given to the coup of June 1989] would have been defeated.” (First Lt.-General Hashim Abdalla Mohammed, Chief of Joint General Staff)
Most emphatic is Defense Minister First Lt.-General Abdel Rahim Mohamed Hussein:“
I start with our relation with Iran and say it is strategic and everlasting. We cannot compromise or lose it. All the advancement in our military industry is from Iran. They opened the doors of their stores of weapons for us, at a time the Arabs stood against us. The Iranian support came at a time we were fighting a rebellion that spread in all the directions including the National Democratic Alliance. The Iranians provided us with experts and they trained our Military Intelligence and security cadres. Also they trained us in weapons production and transferred to us modern technology in military production.”
First Lt.-General Abdel Rahim Mohamed Hussein, Defense Minister of Defense
Finally, and most consequentially, First Lt.-General and Vice President Bakri Hassan Saleh declared decisively:
- “Our relation with Iran is strategic one and unchangeable. [They] who want to assist us can do that without conditions. Once in Saudi Arabia Abdal-Hafiz Ibrahim [Khartoum’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia—ER] [came to me and said] that the Kingdom’s foreign minister wanted to support [us], [but] the problem is our relation with Iran. That [the Saudi] leadership will not accept…. I realized that [Abdal-Hafiz Ibrahim] [had been] infiltrated [by Saudi security agents]. I told Mohammed Atta to put him under surveillance.”
Al-Bashir’s claim that Khartoum does not have a strategic relationship with Iran is a feeble effort at damage control following the leaking of a document that reveals all too clearly that the relationship is indeed “strategic.” Ironically, al-Bashir indirectly confirms the leak with his belabored insistence:
- “Relations would not have reached this stage were it not for false information being leaked about the situation in Sudan and the country’s foreign ties, particularly with Iran. This information was exaggerated,” Bashir said. “All of the information that reached the Saudi leadership within this context was false, fabricated, and exaggerated.” (Asharq al-Awsat [Medina, Saudi Arabia], 11 October 2014)
No reading of the minutes as a whole can lead to any conclusion but that Iran is critical to Khartoum’s view of itself in the region and to the continuing militarization of the Sudanese economy. Tehran’s role in supporting international Islamist movements and terrorist organizations is intimated or discussed explicitly at several junctures in the minutes; this should be seen in the context of the well-established use of Sudan by Iran to funnel weapons to Hamas in Gaza. “Wiki-leaked” State Department cables show clearly that the U.S. has long been aware of this partnership.
At the same time, the need to convince Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States that the relationship is something else comes up again and again in the minutes: these countries must be deceived about the depth of the strategic relationship (something made a good deal more difficult my virtue of these leaked minutes) in order to preserve Sudan’s standing in the Sunni world and to gain access to Saudi wealth:
- “We need to strike a balance in the relation between Gulf States and Iran. Our diplomacy must work here. In the open let us maintain good relations with the Gulf States, but strategically with Iran and to be managed secretly by the Military Intelligence and security organs.”
“Let us win the hearts and minds of the Gulf States and work closely with them also in order to read their minds and plans. We can find out whether they are intending to support us or just conspiring to spoil our relation with Iran and expose our back to the enemy.”
“But Iran may object to the idea that we improve our relation with the Gulf States, meanwhile our economy relies very much on the Saudi Kingdom in terms of investments and expatriates money transfers. Saudis are scared from the Iranian military presence in Sudan and may not allow their banks to resume transactions with Sudan banks in terms of letters of credits for export/import traders plus expatriate transfers to their relatives. (Mustafa Osman Ismail, Political Secretary of the National Congress Party) [This is one of the very few realistic comments about the state of the Sudanese economy; for the realities ignored, see my 17 September 2014 overview—ER]
- Mustafa Osman Ismail, Secretary General of the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party (NCP)
- ” … you know that our relation with Iran is part and parcel of our relation with the Muslim Brotherhood International Islamic Organization. Accordingly, we must consult with Iran and our Islamist group before taking any step in this regard [re-positioning Khartoum diplomatically vis-à-vis Saudi Arabic—ER]. This is, because the Kingdom [Saudi Arabia] cannot be trusted, despite their knowledge that we are in a position to threaten their rule.” (Lt.-General Abdal-Gadir Mohammed Zeen, National Service Coordinator)
- “My comment is on our relation with Saudi Arabia and the Emirates on one side and Iran on the other side. We are capable and also know how to mislead the Gulf States by taking open, declared steps and procedures towards improving diplomatic relations with them, while knowing that they are backed by the Americans and Israel.” (Lt.-General Siddiig Aamir, Director of Military Intelligence and Security)
- “I agree with what brother Mustafa said, that our military and security relations with Iran should not contradict our brotherly and diplomatic relation with Saudi and Emirates countries, especially at this moment, when axis policies, polarization and alliances has surfaced at the level of the region. Currently, there are three million Sudanese employees working in the Gulf States and especially in the Saudi Kingdom. (Lt.-General Salah Al-Tayib, Commissioner of Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration)
- “The secret of the strength of the Ingaz (NCP) government lies in the smooth management of the alliance with Shite’ Iran on one side and the alliance with the Sunni Islamic groups on the other side. Any negligence or failure to maintain this fragile relation between the Sunni and Shite’, will be disastrous and we shall be the biggest losers.” (Lt.-General Siddiig Aamir, Director of Military Intelligence and Security)
- “We must explain to Iranian Military Intelligence the threats we expect and they should understand, so that we keep the relation with both parties [Iran on the one hand, Saudi Arabia and he Gulf States on the other—ER]. At the same time we tell the Saudis that we are taking your side.” (Lt.-General Siddiig Aamir, Director of Military Intelligence and Security)
The Obama Administration’s Dissimulation
Unlike al-Bashir, some come to dissimulate by habit or by virtue of position in office. My October 9 inquiry about the authenticity of the document at issue, sent to the Director of the Office of the U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan, Lucy Tamlyn, yielded only an ambiguous grammatical solecism in response: “The U.S. government would not speculate on the authenticity of the document.” This artful or instinctual misuse of the auxiliary modal verb “would” leaves a reader unsure what is meant: that “The U.S. government will not speculate on the authenticity of the document”? or that “The U.S. government does not speculate on the authenticity of [documents like this one]“? or that “The U.S. government would not be speculat[ing] on the authenticity of the document [in some indeterminate future]“?
But of course all such parsings yield only nonsense: the U.S. government, whatever it chooses to say or not say publicly, has certainly made an intensive, thorough and comprehensive investigation of the document, and has just as certainly reached a “non-speculative” conclusion about its authenticity. The issues addressed in the document are far too important for the Obama administration to tolerate any sort of agnosticism. And given the consensus that I have watched build since initial publication of substantial elements of the document (24 September 2014), it is exceedingly difficult to believe that the U.S has concluded that the document has been fabricated. We will be told publicly of this decision, however, only if the administration finds if useful to do so.
But if this is so, there are any number of moments in the minutes that must be thoroughly discomfiting to U.S. policy-makers, including statements revealing very strong opposition to Special Envoy Donald Booth’s making a trip to Khartoum anytime soon. Moreover, given the views revealed in the minutes, even if such a trip were to occur, its meaning would lie only in the fact that it occurred, generating useful “optics” for the regime as it pushes hard towards its overarching political goal: holding national elections in April 2015 so as to give—in the words of Mustafa Osman Ismail, Political Secretary of the NCP—this ruthless and tyrannical regime “another five years of legitimacy.” But again, there is not a shred of evidence in the documented minutes that those who now wield real power in Khartoum are inclined to see a visit by the American special envoy occur. First Lt.-General Bakri Hassan Saleh, Vice President and the man most likely to have greatest power in a regime following the death, medical incapacitation, or political sidelining of al-Bashir (there are many who oppose his re-nomination for President at the NCP convention later this month), declares:
- “The greatest security and social threat is coming from South Sudan ([and the foreign presence of] Uganda, America, France and Israel), the Armed Movements, South Sudanese, and the two areas [South Kordofan and Blue Nile] where people have been displaced and [become] refugees due to war (diseases, social crimes, children missing education, and some converted to Christianity).” [This passage has been poorly translated and I have with the bracketed phrasing attempted to make sense of what appears to be the intended meaning; in general I have only made minor editorial clarifications, mechanical emendations, and idiomatic renderings of the English translation of the Arabic text; I have no reading Arabic skills—ER]
America is viewed as part of the “greatest security and social threat [to Khartoum].” Thus it is hardly surprising that Bakri goes on to declare:
- “America deceived us in regards to the separation of the South. They did not lift our name from the list of the States sponsoring terrorism or relieve our debts. So the Envoy should not come.”
Ironically, Bakri had just declared that “nobody is paying us and we are indebted to nobody.” In fact, Sudan has massive external debt now exceeding US$46 billion—and while the U.S. is not a major creditor, it is the most powerful member of the Paris Club that would have to reach consensus on debt relief for Sudan, something extremely unlikely even with U.S. support. But the feeling of having been deceived by the U.S. is evidently real and clearly has a bearing on whether Special Envoy Booth will make a trip to Khartoum anytime soon.
First Lt.-General Abdel-Rahim Mohammed Hussein, Minister of Defense, was also adamant about such a visit:
- “Look at the statement [Paris Declaration] of the [Sudan Revolutionary Front] rebels which they want to execute with the help of France and the American Envoy. [The Paris Declaration of principles was also signed by Sadiq el-Mahdi, representing the National Umma Party; the minutes reveal this to be a particular political concern of the participants—ER]
- “This is meddling in our internal affairs. Accordingly the American envoy should not be permitted to enter Sudan.”
Publicly these sentiments emerge with a rather different tone, even suggesting the possibility of a meeting that senior officials have explicitly ruled out in private:
Sudanese foreign ministry undersecretary, Abdallah Azrak, told al-Youm Altali newspaper that Khartoum and Washington needed to repair the broken trust, stressing that his government no longer believes what American officials say. “We had received multiple pledges on many occasions, but the USA has not fulfilled its promises,” he said. He went further to welcome [sic] Booth’s visit to Sudan, stressing, “We need assurances of the sincerity of American statements, especially they did not fulfill previous promises.” (Sudan Tribune, 11 October 2011)
The irony of Khartoum complaining about “unfulfilled promises” is of course simply grotesque: for the complaint comes from a regime that has never abided by any promise or agreement signed with any Sudanese party during its 25 years in power—not one, not ever. Implicit in Abdallah Azrak’s statement is a claim that Khartoum abided by the terms of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (2005), the primary demand of the U.S. under both the Bush and Obama administrations. But whether we look to the military seizure of Abyei (May 2011) that replaced the self-determination referendum guaranteed in the Abyei Protocol of the CPA; or to the military assaults on the people of South Kordofan and Blue Nile that took the place of the “popular consultations” guaranteed by the CPA; or to the refusal to negotiate a final delineation of the North/South border as stipulated by the CPA; or to the ground and aerial military assaults on sovereign South Sudanese territory, Khartoum is far, far from having kept the “promise” implicit in the signing of the CPA.
So while Special Envoy Donald Booth waits for a response to his recently reiterated offer to visit Khartoum, he apparently fails to see that the electoral strategy articulated on every page of the minutes of the August 31 meeting in Khartoum has no place for such a visit. The Sudan Tribune provides the public explanation coming from Khartoum:
In reaction to [Washington’s efforts to secure humanitarian access to affected civilians in war-affected areas in South Kordofan and Blue Nile] Khartoum decided to not cooperate with the US special envoy who [has not visited] the Sudanese capital since December 2013. During [this] visit he was received only at the Parliament [i.e., not by any senior official—ER].
Azrak also rejected what Booth statements about the national dialogue process considering it as interference in Sudan’s internal affairs. “The government is not ready to receive lessons in this regard,” he said.
Booth welcomed the national dialogue process but urged the Sudanese government to take the necessary measures to create a conducive environment in the country and to reach a framework agreement with the opposition parties. “But to date, realisation of the promised National Dialogue remains uncertain. In the intervening months, details of the purported dialogue were few, and actions taken by the government appeared to run contrary to its stated intent,” he said. (Sudan Tribune, 11 October 2014)
Finally, it is important to bear in mind that the racist views of Defense Minister Hussein are not his alone, and work to define the regime’s attitude toward Western nations:
- “Whatever the case, the White People will never give you enough support or fight along with [you]. The greatest liars are the White People; they are concerned about their own interest only.”
That Hussein himself has a gargantuan capacity for mendacity, and has shamelessly pursued self-enrichment, as have all the men whose views are recorded, make of this statement an utterly perverse irony.
Khartoum’s Political Vision
Throughout the minutes, the “National Dialogue” (as it is called) is clearly nothing more than a political ploy, a means of giving merely the impression of pluralism and broad national involvement in discussing the governance of Sudan. A series of comments make clear the factitious nature of the “dialogue,” which in fact is a monologue dominated by the threat of action by the security and military forces in the event of true popular demonstrations: “The national dialogue is to take place in Khartoum and under the chairmanship of President Bashir. No dialogue to take place abroad [with expatriate Sudanese]” (Mustafa Osman Ismail, Political Secretary of the National Congress Party).
The events of September 2013, in which hundreds of unarmed and largely peaceful demonstrators were killed by security forces operating under “shoot to kill orders,” are constantly invoked in the minutes:
- ” … this year we have already trained [teams] to protect the elections and assist the police to suppress any such activities that may be carried out by the rebellion or the supporters of the New Sudan Project.” (Lt.-General Abdal-Gadir Mohammed Zeen, National Service Coordinator)
- “Let us go and prepare a force to protect the elections. Secondly, if the peace talks are necessary let them take place after the elections, and the internal national dialogue can continue after we hold the elections. There must be strict control over the freedom of the press, political statements of the party leaders, and the national security should remain a red line…. Let us criminalize anybody who support the rebellion or criticize the regular armed forces.” (First Lt.-General Hashim Osman Hisen, Director General of Police)
- “First our preparation for the elections is going according to plan…. We want our security organs to inform us about the opinion of all political parties, loyal or detractors on the elections before time to enable us influence things earlier.” (Ibrahim Ghandur, Deputy Chairman of the NCP)
And the key recommendation of Vice President Bakri Hassan Saleh is characteristically blunt:
- “Preparation of the necessary force for the protection of the elections.”
All this is by way ensuring the NCP’s primary goal: that an election occurs without any delay in April 2015, a goal that is constantly reiterated:
- “No way for postponement of the elections whatever the case.” (Mustafa Osman Ismail, Political Secretary of the National Congress Party)
- “The elections must take place on time. Holding the elections constitutes a psychological war against the armed movements and may frustrate them and lead to the end of the project of the New Sudan Project.” (Lt. General Salah Al-Tayib, Demobilization, Disarmament and Reintegration Commissioner) [The “New Sudan Project” is governance in Sudan guided by the principle, most forcefully articulated by the late Southern leader John Garang, that neither race nor ethnicity nor religion should be the basis for citizenship in a truly multi-party, democratic Sudan. The terms is repeatedly invoked as the great enemy of the regime’s political goals—ER]
- “[We have teams ready] to protect the elections and assist the police to suppress any such activities that may be carried out by the rebellion or the supporters of the New Sudan Project.” (Lt. General Abdal-Gadir Mohammed Zeen, National Service Coordinator)
- “… if the peace talks are necessary let them take place after the elections, and the internal national dialogue can continue after we hold the elections.” (First Lt.-General Hashim Osman Hisen, Director General of Police) [“… if the peace talks are necessary”: this may seem an extraordinary conditional statement, given the multiple wars ongoing in Sudan, but in fact is entirely consistent with the regime’s determination to avoid all peace forums if possible: the wish is to determine events militarily, again a sentiment that echoes and re-echoes throughout the minutes—ER)
A summary by security chief Mohammed Atta captures the broader strategic sense of the regime;
- “We said the national dialogue must be held inside the country, elections to take place on time, the decisive summer [military] campaign must continue. We should step-up the recruitment to increase the Rapid Response Forces” [i.e., re-constituted Janjaweed militia—ER]. (First Lt.-General Mohammed Atta, Director General of the National Intelligence and Security Services)
A more impressive and much more insightful summary, however, is offered by Osman Mirghani (Asharq Al-Awsat, 4 October 2014):
That Sudan’s Islamist regime is using trickery and prevarication is not strange for a group that has made deceit and pretense a key part of its political culture. But a recently-leaked document highlighting what happened during a meeting between military, political and security leaders in Khartoum in late August reveals how far the regime is willing to go in order to maintain its grip on power…
On the domestic level, the document [i.e., the minutes of the August 31 meeting of senior military and security officials] confirms what every wise observer already knows—that the regime is manipulating the opposition and employing talk about dialogue and reconciliation to gain time and fragment its political opponents. In fact, the regime desires to use talk about dialogue to legitimize the presidential and legislative elections scheduled for next year.
What then would be the purpose of a visit to Khartoum by U.S. Special Envoy Donald Booth? What could he expect to accomplish in pushing this now fully revealed regime toward a true democratic election? Booth’s predecessor as Special Envoy, Princeton Lyman, remains notorious for having declared of U.S. Sudan policy:
“We do not want to see the ouster of the [Khartoum] regime, nor regime change. We want to see the regime carrying out reform via constitutional democratic measures.” (3 December 2011 interview with Asharq Al-Awsat)
Special Envoy Booth has done far too little to move the Obama administration away from this utterly preposterous vision of political change in Sudan. Indeed, I am not aware that he has distanced U.S. policy at all from the truly bizarre notion that the current regime, as revealed by the men speaking in the minutes of this recent meeting, might preside over meaningful reform or commit in any way to “constitutional democratic measures.”
[The next analysis will be a detailed accounting of the various political machinations, bribery efforts, deceptions, and security preparations detailed by various participants at the 31 August 2014 meeting. With elections upcoming in April 2015, these hardliners are determined that there will be at most the semblance of a democratic election—desirable for international “public relations”—even as they make fully clear that they intend to ensure the NCP candidate for president will win easily. Because their plans are so elaborate and well-developed, they are determined that the election will not be delayed for any reason whatsoever, a point made repeatedly and emphatically by all speaking about the elections.]