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Iran’s intervention in Sudan’s civil war advances its geopolitical goals − but not without risks

Eric Lob, Florida International University, The Conversation on

Published in News & Features

Iran’s role in funding and arming proxy groups in the Middle East has been well documented and has gotten extra attention since the Hamas-led attack in Israel in October 2023. Similarly, Tehran’s arms shipments to Russia are well known and have prompted complaints and sanctions from the West.

But Tehran has received little coverage of its military intervention in another deadly conflict: Sudan’s civil war.

Since that conflict started in April 2023, it has killed at least 13,000 people, injured over 33,000 others and displaced millions more. After years of relative peace, people are once again being massacred in the southern region of Darfur.

In the immediate aftermath of fighting breaking out between two rival factions of Sudan’s military government, Iran limited its involvement to supplying humanitarian aid.

But that policy didn’t last long. Between December 2023 and January 2024, Tehran supplied several Mohajer-6 midrange reconnaissance and combat drones to President Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and his Sudanese Armed Forces, or SAF.

In February, the drones helped the SAF take territory from Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as “Hemedti,” and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, or RSF, during an offensive in the city of Omdurman.

 

While the conflict in Sudan has gotten less global attention than those in Ukraine and Gaza, it is strategically significant for Tehran. As an expert on Iran’s foreign policy, I see how Tehran is increasingly using involvement in African conflict zones to advance the country’s military, commercial and particularly geopolitical goals. It follows a similar trajectory as Iran’s involvement in Ethiopia during the Tigray war of 2020-22.

Militarily and commercially, drone exports to the SAF have been a continuation of Iran’s actions since the expiration of a U.N. arms embargo against Tehran in October 2020.

Since then, Iran has delivered surveillance and attack drones not only to its quasi- and nonstate proxies and partners in the Middle East – such as Hezbollah, Hamas and the Houthis in Yemen – but also increasingly to states outside the region such as Ethiopia, Russia, Tajikistan and Venezuela.

Iran has done this to project power, strengthen alliances and influence conflicts in the Middle East and other regions. At the same time, it can prove a lucrative source of income for the Iranian economy, as well as a showcase for the country’s technology. While it is difficult to determine the precise revenue Iran has received from military drone exports, the estimated value of the global market in 2022 was US$12.55 billion, a figure expected to reach $14.14 billion in 2023 and $35.60 billion in 2030.

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