Dec. 8 - A second visit by Iranian warships in little over a month risks widening divisions inside the Sudanese government and upsetting the African country's Gulf Arab donors. Rough Cut (no reporter narration)
ROUGH CUT - NO REPORTER NARRATION A second visit by Iranian warships to Sudan in little over a month risks widening divisions inside the African country's government and upsetting its Gulf Arab donors. Sudanese officials described the docking of Iran's 23th fleet - destroyer Jamaran and logistics ship Bushehr - for three days in Port Sudan on Saturday (December 8) as a routine refuelling stop. Iran's Press TV said fleet commanders met with Sudanese government and navy officials. It quoted Abdulla al-Matri, head of the Sudanese navy in Port Sudan, as saying he "expressed happiness over the arrival...and called for the further expansion of the military ties between Iran and Sudan," according to a report on the station's website. Analysts say the docking of ships, which will be open to the public, according to the army, could hinder Sudan's efforts to win badly needed aid from Gulf Arab oil producers such as Saudi Arabia, which are worried about Iran's influence in the region. Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir has held on to power for 23 years, but economic crisis has fed dissent and squeezed the patronage system that secures loyalty of key army and ruling party figures. Last month, authorities arrested a former spy chief and 12 others accused of a coup attempt. Faced with the loss of three quarters of oil production when South Sudan broke away to become independent last year, Sudan's foreign ministry has sought to bolster links with Gulf states. But military ties with Shi'ite Iran unnerve Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia, located just across the Red Sea from Port Sudan. The kingdom has not publicly commented on the visits but pro-government paper al-Riyadh said Sudan was risking Gulf ties. Bashir and Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have met several times in the past two years but the bilateral ties are controversial inside the Khartoum government. Analysts say the army, facing several insurgencies in Sudan's borderlands, wants to foster ties with Iran after both countries signed a military agreement in 2008. But the foreign ministry sees the Iranian connection as an obstacle to winning more investment from Gulf states and also Europe, as it tries to overcome Sudan's isolation and image as radical Islamist state, diplomats say. Foreign Minister Ali Ahmed Karti played down the ship visit. "This is normal cooperation between armies," he said on Tuesday. But in a television interview, reported by online Paris-based Sudan Tribune, Karti said in November he had not been consulted over the first navy visit after opposing a similar docking in February. Iran and Sudan have little bilateral trade. Iran is hardly noticed in Khartoum beyond a bridge project it funds, a cultural centre teaching Farsi and an office of its state oil company. Gulf states are among the biggest investors in the country and have just funded a large sugar plant and Sudan's only shopping mall. Diplomats say Sudan's central bank has toured the Gulf several times, trying to drum up support for more funding.