How Iran and Saudi Arabia Can Together Bring Peace to the Middle East
The Promise of Diplomacy as the United States Withdraws
On January 13, citing progress on a series of policy benchmarks, Washington eased sanctions on Sudan even though the atrocities that had originally prompted them—the bombing of civilians, raiding of villages, denial of food aid, and possible use of chemical weapons—remain a central part of Khartoum’s strategy against civilian populations in Darfur and other conflict-torn regions of Sudan. In the early part of 2016, for example, the government launched an offensive against the Sudan Liberation Movement–Abdel Wahid, which caused significant civilian casualties and displacement and led to a number of human rights violations such as arbitrary arrest, detention, and the torture of political actors.
And yet the international community’s treatment of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir today is a complete reversal from eight years ago, when the world was still reeling from the genocide in Darfur. Bashir was an international pariah back then. The International Criminal Court (ICC) had issued an arrest warrant in response to his genocidal actions in Darfur. The United States had ratcheted up sanctions throughout the administration of George W. Bush, who was then leaving office, and his successor, Barack Obama, had railed against the genocide in Darfur as a senator. In addition, most Middle Eastern governments were opposed to the regime in Khartoum because of its alliance with Iran.
Since then, the wars have only grown, engulfing the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile regions, and the Khartoum regime has cut off humanitarian access to these areas, which has left countless people without emergency aid for more than five years. Aerial bombing has continued against civilian targets, and Joseph Kony of the Lord’s Resistance Army is still operating from Sudan. Meanwhile, numerous political prisoners languish in Sudanese prisons, corruption is endemic, and the economy is in shambles. Perhaps most galling of all, elements of the notorious Janjaweed militias, the main perpetrators of the earlier genocide in Darfur, have been incorporated into the government’s army and innocuously renamed the “rapid support forces.”
But in spite of the unending violence, numerous countries, including China, India, South Africa, and Saudi Arabia, have defied the ICC arrest warrant and allowed Bashir to visit. (Some of those countries have geopolitical interests in doing so and others are trying to register their discontent with the ICC and its investigations.) The European Union has struck a deal to give millions of dollars in aid to Sudan in return for its help in stemming migration to Europe. And Sudan’s erstwhile enemies, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have provided huge amounts of aid in exchange for Sudanese troops in Yemen to combat the Houthi rebels.
This paradox can be explained by three dynamics that have emerged over the last few years. The first is the migration crisis in Europe, which has compelled the EU to strike deals with a number of unsavory regimes in Africa, including Sudan, even though elements of the Janjaweed, now known as the rapid support forces, are the principal entities securing Sudan’s border with Libya, through which migrants reach Italy. The second is the rise of the Islamic State (or ISIS) and other terrorist groups and Washington’s need for allies on counterterrorism. The Bashir regime has done just enough to earn the plaudits of the CIA and other intelligence entities—such as limiting the movement of these groups in and out of Sudan, as well as sharing its knowledge of their inner workings. The third element driving warmer relations with Sudan is the proxy war in Yemen between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iran’s suffering from intensified U.S. sanctions led to a reduction in aid to Khartoum over the last few years. The Bashir regime thus engineered a historic move away from its longtime ally and forged an alliance with Riyadh.
And therein lies the inconvenient truth of international relations: geopolitical, counter-terrorism, and refugee-containment priorities can usually trump human rights concerns, even genocide. But recall the disastrous effects during the Cold War of the United States and Soviet Union conditioning aid on allegiance to their ideological causes: many of those authoritarian, rights-abusing governments later imploded when aid was reduced. In fact, the flow of refugees from Africa and the Middle East to Europe is caused, in part, by those trying to flee kleptocratic states like Sudan, which are marked by extreme repression, grand corruption, and a lack of opportunity for young people. In Eritrea, for example, despite a shoot-to-kill order for those fleeing the country, enormous numbers of migrants and refugees continue to leave. Sudan’s sweeping collective punishment campaigns, including well-documented ethnic targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure, have closed off all options of a normal life for Darfurian youth, compelling them to take the dangerous journey to Europe. Until there is peace and a stable government that does not squander the country’s resources and grossly mismanage the economy, there is no incentive for people to stay. Furthermore, long-term solutions to the migrant crisis need not take decades. Resource-rich countries like Eritrea and Sudan can reform quickly if their governments put their people’s interests over those of the power elites.
The biggest issue is that the easing of U.S. sanctions, and the ensuing weakening of financial pressure and thus, leverage, will entrench Bashir’s regime. Without meaningful checks on its ability to profit from grand corruption or access the global financial system, the regime will be able to use its huge financial advantages to shut out challengers through various forms of coercion or violence, if necessary. Western leaders will therefore have much less bargaining power to challenge the regime on issues ranging from migration to terrorism. The strengthening of a violent and corrupt autocracy will only continue to devastate the country, pushing more to migrate or engage in criminal activities such as human trafficking and smuggling, or in some cases, terrorism or armed resistance against the government.
That is why it is vital to weigh the short-term benefits of making deals with corrupt dictators like Bashir against the damage being done to the construction of a legitimate, stable state in Sudan. In this, Washington and Europe must recognize the leverage that sanctions and other financial pressures can offer them and other international actors seeking to end the atrocities in Sudan. Over the last few years, U.S. sanctions were beginning to have a real impact on Sudan’s rulers, stymieing their ability to conduct business and offshore their stolen wealth.
The administration of President Donald Trump should recognize the leverage it has by modernizing the current sanctions regime, targeting the money laundering schemes and corrupt behavior of the key military and security organs and officials who are benefiting from Sudan’s war economy. At the same time, the new U.S. administration should ensure there are more robust exemptions for medical and humanitarian sectors, as well as for people-to-people initiatives and academic exchange. For example, in the medical and humanitarian context, the sanctions allow exports of agricultural products, medicine, and medical devices, but only upon obtaining a special license from the U.S. Treasury. With the Iran sanctions, changes were made to allow exports without a special license and through a general one. For people-to-people exchanges for Iran and Cuba, the Treasury has provided general licenses for academic exchange agreements, professional research, and programs for independent media training and human rights, among others. These general licenses should also be extended to cover Sudan.
Europe should support such efforts by implementing its own sanctions against the worst activities of the Bashir regime, first at the EU level and then on an individual member state basis, ensuring that financial intelligence units are investigating and acting against money laundering activities. This will have a greater impact on staunching the flow of refugees than making deals with dictators. Europe should also remember that short-term solutions are at odds with its official migration policy as outlined in the 2015 creation of the Emergency Trust Fund, which seeks “stability and addressing root causes of irregular migration and displaced persons in Africa.”
Somehow, Bashir has found a way to get the world to ignore his scorched earth approach to government and war. But if the West allows Bashir’s violent kleptocracy to continue without the pressure to build a more inclusive and transparent government, U.S. and European policy objectives related to terrorism and migration will be severely undermined.