On the heels of the historic peace accords Israel signed last week with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, another regional deal is now possible. Sudan, once a terror safe harbor, is openly mulling ties with the Jewish state. Another major diplomatic achievement beckons, provided Washington gives the right nudges.
Team Trump is keen for a domino effect. Sudan is just one possibility. Oman, Morocco and Saudi Arabia are also among states reportedly mulling ties with the erstwhile archenemy. The key is momentum. If Sudan steps forward, Arab states will see a new regional order quickly taking shape, one in which Jerusalem is on the same side as regimes that seek to counter Iran and Sunni Islamists.
But there are other wins to claim, too. Since a coup in 1989, Sudan was governed by ideological extremists who embraced jihadist groups and state sponsors of terrorism. Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda had a home in Sudan until the mid-1990s. The regime held terrorist confabs that attracted Hezbollah, Hamas and myriad other jihadist outfits. As author and journalist Richard Cockett quipped, "It was a Davos in the desert for terrorists."
After 9/11, Sudan began to cooperate with the United States on Sunni terrorism. But the regime shifted its support to Shiite terrorists. The Islamic Republic of Iran tapped Sudan as a transit hub to ship ammunition to conflict zones across Africa. Much of the Iranian weaponry Hamas amassed in the Gaza Strip was smuggled to the coastal enclave by way of Sudan. This was laid bare by a daring Israeli air raid in 2012 that obliterated an Iranian rocket warehouse in the outskirts of Khartoum.
Sudan was added to the State Department's "state sponsor of terrorism" list in 1993, and it very much belonged there — until last year, that is.
On April 11, 2019, the country's strongman Omar al-Bashir was toppled following months of domestic unrest stemming from economic and political frustrations. The new regime, while far from perfect, is a significant upgrade. It's pragmatic and eschews the ideological impulses of its predecessor. It has separated religion from politics. It has outlawed female genital mutilation.
Somehow, the country remains on America's terrorism list. It shouldn't be. The Trump administration now has a remarkable opportunity. Lifting sanctions would convey that Washington has scored a rare diplomatic win in the war on terrorism. We can also make it clear to other suffering Middle Eastern populations, notably in Iran, that America will reward people who reclaim their countries from theocratic dictatorships.
Sudanese leaders Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and Chairman of the Sovereignty Council Abdel Fattah al-Burhan met this week in the UAE with American diplomats. They seek some $3 billion in financial assistance and removal from the terrorism list in exchange for normalization with Israel.
Reports out of Abu Dhabi suggest that progress has been slow. The Trump administration is reluctant to dole out that much cash. Some American lawmakers want Sudan to account for its past by compensating victims of al Qaeda's 1998 terrorist attacks in Kenya and Tanzania (there is a legal judgment to back this up), as well as victims of the 9/11 attacks (there is no judgment for this).
Victims of terrorist attacks undeniably deserve justice. But a major Sudanese payout is unlikely right now. Sudan's economy is running on fumes. The government can barely afford to feed its people, particularly during the COVID-19 economic downturn.
Washington should move quickly and creatively to find a compromise. Sudan is no longer supporting terrorists. And Khartoum is ready to reach an agreement (Burhan met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in February). A diplomatic victory awaits.
If that's not enough incentive, it's worth noting that China is one of Sudan's largest trading partners. There is an opportunity now to woo Sudan out of Beijing's sphere of influence. This would be no small feat, as great-power competition escalates in Africa and beyond.
The benefits of a deal with Sudan are clear. Opportunities like this don't arise often. Your move, Mr. President.
Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the US Treasury, is senior vice president for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Twitter: @JSchanzer