Argument

The Islamic Republic of Sudan?

A recent report in the Sudanese opposition media suggests that Iran may be operating a weapons factory near Khartoum. Have the two countries taken their military alliance to the next level?

The Sudanese newspaper Rai al-Shaab (Opinion of the People), owned and controlled by Sudanese opposition leader Hassan al-Turabi, recently published an article that potentially provides new and important insight into Sudan's terrorist ties to Iran. The article alleges that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, is operating a secret weapons factory in Sudan to funnel weapons to Iran-sponsored terrorist organizations in Africa and the Middle East.

Several Arab bloggers circulated the article last week. Today, these blogs are the only evidence that the article ever existed. Soon after it was published, Sudanese authorities shut down the entire newspaper. The paper's deputy editor, Abu Zur al-Amin, was arrested on charges of "terrorism, espionage and destabilizing the constitutional system," according to Reuters.

The Sudanese newspaper report claimed that the Quds Force, a deadly arm of the IRGC that has been fingered by the U.S. government for providing military support to the Taliban and other anti-U.S. forces in Afghanistan, set up the factory "in the jurisdiction of Khartoum" as part of an undeclared element of the 2008 defense pact signed between Iran and Sudan.

Israel, for its part, might already be aware of the IRGC weapons factory. In fact, it might have already attacked the weapons produced there. In March 2009, U.S. officials claimed that Israel had conducted three airstrikes in Sudan in early 2009 that targeted Iranian weapons shipments meant for Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip. One attack in January 2009 targeted a 17-truck convoy, killing as many as 39 people, reported CBS News, the first Western media outlet to reveal this story. Israel, as is often the case, neither confirmed nor denied this report.

Although Rai al-Shaab's news item is still unconfirmed, the long history of military cooperation between Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir and the Islamic Republic certainly places it within the realm of possibility. Indeed, the mullahs have been helping Sudan expand its terrorist infrastructure since Islamists (led by the aforementioned Turabi) brought Bashir to power through a coup d'état in 1989.

In 1991, according to author and prominent Iranian opposition activist Mohammad Mohaddessin, Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, along with dozens of military advisors and officials, paid an official visit to Khartoum, where he pledged $17 million in financial aid and arranged for weapons deliveries to the country. "The Islamic revolution of Sudan," he proclaimed, "alongside Iran's pioneer revolution, can doubtless be the source of movement and revolution throughout the Islamic world." As many as 2,000 soldiers from the IRGC were subsequently sent to Sudan to train the country's military forces.

Sudan has continued to serve as a central hub for Iranian terrorist activity. From training Hamas to funneling weapons to a Hezbollah cell in Egypt last year, Sudan has played an important role in Iran's regional strategy. The Rai al-Shaab article argues that this factory is an extension of these efforts. The weapons, it claims, are being supplied to extremist elements in Africa and the Middle East, including supplying the "Houthis [in Yemen], Somalis, and ... Hamas in the Gaza Strip with missiles."

Why would Tehran establish a weapons factory in Sudan, when it could simply produce arms on Iranian soil? The article claims that the factory is an Iranian attempt to streamline its supply chain, now under intense scrutiny due to the international furor over the country's illicit nuclear program. The IRGC reportedly has complete control of the factory, but the weapons do not bear Iranian markings.

Specifically, Rai al-Shaab noted the interdiction of 35 tons of North Korean-made weaponry by Thai authorities in December 2009, which the IRGC had reportedly earmarked for Hamas, as a reason for it to establish a Sudan-based factory. The plane's cargo reportedly included "shoulder-launched missiles, parts for surface-to-air missiles, and electronic systems to control weapons," according to the Wall Street Journal. Until now, only Israel has accused Iran of bankrolling this shipment.

Today, Sudanese authorities are cracking down on the journalists for violating Sudan's press law, which places "responsibility for publishing false information in a newspaper upon the newspaper's editor and managers." Turabi was one of the figures recently jailed in this wave of arrests. Although there are certainly good reasons to arrest him -- he was a close ally of Osama bin Laden during the al Qaeda leader's time in Sudan during the 1990s -- Al Jazeera reports that Bashir arrested him over the Rai al-Shaab story.

The existence of an IRGC weapons factory in Sudan would certainly be cause for alarm. The IRGC, after all, is viewed by the U.S. government as a chief actor in Iran's efforts to attain a nuclear weapon. The factory could also be used to supply weapons to Hamas in the Gaza Strip, not to mention arms for the Sudanese regime's ongoing genocide campaign in Darfur.

Questions remain over the possible IRGC weapons factory in Sudan. But it's a fair bet that Western intelligence agencies are scrambling to answer them.

Isam Al-Haj/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Tehran's Lost Connection

Is the Iranian regime's cyberwar with the United States real, or a paranoid delusion?

During last year's election turmoil in Tehran, the Iranian regime's biggest foe often seemed to be 21st-century technology. While the regime cracked down on supporters of opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi -- the so-called Green Movement -- with decidedly pre-Web 2.0 tools like truncheons and tear gas, protesters used Twitter, YouTube, and other Web-based applications to publicize their cause, and the regime's brutal response, to the rest of the world.

A year later, however, Iranian dissidents' techno-euphoria is mostly a thing of the past. The regime's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) declared victory over the opposition this February, after the Green Movement's call for massive demonstrations to mark the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution were effectively blocked by the regime's nationwide shutdown of both Internet and cell-phone access. The Greens, deprived of communications in a society where mass media are under complete state control, suffered a lackluster turnout, prompting some Iran watchers in Washington to (prematurely) declare the movement dead.

That period of triumph, however, seems to be a distant memory for Iran's hard-line leadership. Today, the IRGC and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei are obsessed with a more formidable foe in cyberspace: the U.S. government. The United States, the regime avers, is engaging in a cyberwar to loosen its own hold on power. Nearly every day, the state-run newspapers warn of Washington's well-planned strategy to overcome the Iranian regime's control of the Internet. "The U.S. military enters the arena of cyber wars in an organized manner," read a large headline carried by the Fars news agency on May 10. Kayhan newspaper, which distributes Khamenei's views, has accused the U.S. government of using Iran's Internet-savvy youth to launch a cyberspace "soft war" against the regime. "The target of this new American plan are the youth who use the Internet more frequently than older people and are easier to deceive," the paper reported.

The attacks sometimes verge on the obsessive. On April 20, Kayhan devoted an entire column to condemning Haystack, a program that uses sophisticated mathematical algorithms to allow users to circumvent government Internet filters and cover the tracks of their online activities. The paper called the program "a CIA plan." (Actually, it was these guys.) Kayhan also responded immediately to news of a conference in Washington convened by the Century Foundation (my employer) and the National Security Network on communications technology and dissent in Iran, declaring the event to be proof that the "CIA was stepping up its efforts for Internet freedom" in Iran and tarring its participants -- including me -- as American spies. Iranian authorities have warned that the "enemy" is gearing up in its Internet war to help protesters fight Iran's security forces this Saturday; the Green Movement's de facto leaders had suggested large protests that day, but released a statement today saying it was too dangerous to demonstrate on the the first anniversary of the disputed presidential election.

Why all the concern with an alleged U.S. government plot to overthrow the regime through cyberspace? Well, for one thing, the United States actually is mounting a number of efforts to liberate Iran's virtual society, even if those efforts don't quite amount to the fiendish plot of the regime's imagination. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a major policy speech on Jan. 21, announcing a new Internet freedom initiative, in which she singled out Iran and China as the countries of most concern to Washington. "[D]espite an intense campaign of government intimidation, brave citizen journalists in Iran continue using technology to show the world and their fellow citizens what is happening inside their country," Clinton said. "And their courage is redefining how technology is used to spread truth and expose injustice."

Iran is also aware of a little-known U.S. government fund established last year, called the Near East Regional Democracy Program (NERD), which is intended to fund technology initiatives to promote Internet freedom. President Barack Obama has requested $40 million from Congress for it, and the program enjoys broad bipartisan support. While the funds are not restricted to Iran, there is a movement in Congress to allocate the money specifically for the Islamic Republic. In Iran's eyes, NERD is reminiscent of the notorious $75 million pot of money that former President George W. Bush earmarked for regime change in Iran.

The program is still far from getting off the ground, however -- the U.S. government has yet to sort out how it would actually use the money if it received it, much less coordinate with the software companies that would be necessary partners in the endeavor. This delay matters: Anticipating a U.S.-led cyberspace attack, the IRGC is likely to deploy its most advanced technology to shut down Internet access, email, and cell-phone traffic ahead of the anniversary of the presidential election and the expected protests that will accompany it. So far, Washington has shown that it is acutely aware of the communications and other technological difficulties facing Iranian dissidents, but there is no sign that it has come up with a concrete response plan. If the opposition is waiting for U.S. help, it might be slow in coming.

AFP/Getty Images