Washington — The Sudanese foreign minister Ali Karti warned his peers at the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) that they may soon have to make decision on how deep they want their ties with Iran to be.
According to the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper the issue was brought up during a recent meeting of the NCP's external relations sector stirring controversy.
"Is it in the strategic interest of Sudan in its external relations [with the world] to bolster ties with Arab Gulf states to obtain financial and economic assistance and expand investments or strengthen them with Iran for reasons related to the nature of the projected shifts in Israeli-Iranian conflict in the region?" the Sudanese top diplomat said in his non-public remarks at the meeting.
Karti went on to say that a decision on the matter could affect Sudan and make its "back exposed" should it be forced to take sides in any confrontation involving Iran.
But the meeting failed to offer guidance to Karti, the report said and the meeting got heated during the discussions prompting a walkout by several participants.
Al-Hayat also disclosed that Tehran presented an alliance proposal to Khartoum for the purpose of "protecting" the Red Sea. The presidency, foreign ministry and NCP have yet to respond back with their position.
In July 2011, the Iranian defense minister Ahmad Vahidi was quoted by Fars news agency as emphasizing that the Red Sea is an important part of his country's security strategy.
Vahidi said that as part of this strategy, Iranian naval ships are present in the Red Sea.
News of rifts within the NCP on the country's relationship with Iran comes a week after Sudan blamed Israel for an airstrike at the Yarmouk arms factory in the south of Khartoum.
Although the Jewish state refused to confirm or deny involvement, analysts and military experts believe that Israel likely acted to target a cache of weapons that was to be smuggled via Egypt to Gaza strip which is now controlled by Hamas.
The Satellite Sentinel Project, a U.S. monitoring group, released pre and post-explosion imagery over the weekend which suggests that the target may have been 40 shipping containers that were present days before the suspected Israeli airstrike took place.
The group said the six 52-foot-wide craters, all centered at the spot where the containers had been, were consistent with an airstrike and that whatever it hit was a "highly volatile cargo," causing a powerful explosion that destroyed at least two structures in the compound and sent ordnance flying into nearby neighborhoods.
The Sudanese government vehemently rejected suggestions that the factory was built or operated by Iran and accused Israel of leaking "misleading information".
"Iran does not need to manufacture weapons in Sudan, be it for itself of for its allies" the foreign ministry said this week.
But suspicions were reignited after two Iranian warships docked in Sudan since Sunday before leaving on Wednesday. The Sudanese army spokesperson Colonel Al-Sawarmi Khalid Sa'ad said the visit was pre-planned had nothing to do with the recent airstrike and that the navy vessels were merely carrying "a message of support and friendship".
Col. Sa'ad went on to say that this "clearly shows the solid support of political and diplomatic relationships between the Sudanese and Iranian navies".
Iran was one of the first nations to condemn the airstrike on Khartoum and its deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian blasted silence by some countries in the international community.
"Some countries which raised Cain over the Syrian issue and even suspended Syria's membership in the Arab League, are now expected to take an active and suitable measure in the face of Tel Aviv's blatant invasion of an important Arab League member [Sudan]," the Iranian official told Press TV.
The United States this week said it has no involvement in the Khartoum attack . Mark Toner, acting State department spokesperson, also asserted that Washington had no further details on the purported airstrike.
However he noted that the US was monitoring the Iranian navy warships that arrived in Sudan.
"There are - naval vessels is my understanding, reports, we have seen those reports that two Iranian naval vessels were docked in the Port of Sudan this week. We're obviously watching that closely. We monitor Iran's activities in the region very closely," Toner told reporters in the daily briefing.
But it was not just the US which monitored - with dissatisfaction- the Iranian visit.
A diplomatic source told Sudan Tribune that Sudan's spy chief Mohamed Atta held talks with his Saudi counterpart Bandar Bin Sultan who criticized Khartoum for "being too close to Iran". Atta was in Saudi Arabia for the annual pilgrimage season which concluded last week.
The Saudi pro-government Al-Riyadh newspaper in its editorial this week titled "The fall of masks between Iran and Sudan" blasted Khartoum over the Iranian warships saying there is no "logical justification" for relationship between the two countries.
"Bashir's government resorting to a state that is in political and security odds with most Arab countries has no logical justification," the newspaper said.
"Syria did not openly declare its alliance with Iran but except for claiming that it is in the trenches of resistance and opposition which is a major lie. But Sudan does not have the same reasoning for the loss of credibility and the fact that what it is conducting is naive policy"
The editorial said that the Sudanese government turned the country, despite its enormous potentials, to a marginalized nation that is unable to attract Arab or foreign investors.
This may explain why Saudi Arabia has been reluctant to assist Sudan financially as it struggled following the independence of the oil-rich south in July 2011.
A report released by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) last September showed that Riyadh's assistance to Khartoum accounted for only 1.34% of the total amount of money allocated by the oil-producing nation to other Arab countries over the last eighteen months.
Last March Sudanese president Omer Hassan al-Bashir traveled to Saudi Arabia where he met with King Abdullah in a bid to obtain desperately needed cash for the beleaguered economy.
But Bashir left Riyadh without any commitments in the visit in which he was accompanied by the ministers of finance, oil, minerals, agriculture as well as the Central Bank governor.
Ironically, the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad paid a visit to Khartoum a year ago but disappointed his Sudanese hosts by failing to offer any financial help. Officials in Khartoum have privately said that they hoped Tehran would provide hard currency deposit in Sudan's central bank to boost its Forex reserves.
Domestically there is also considerable suspicion and unease with regards to Iran.
Religious leaders in Sudan have criticized the government for not standing up to expanding Iranian influence in the country and spread of the Shiite followers in the Sunni dominated country.
In 2006 the Sudanese chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood said it had presented evidence of Tehran's attempts to convert locals to Shiites.
"It's a large scale plan conceived by Shiite groups and local organizations with the objective of spreading Shi'itism in Sudan," a spokesman for the group said.
Sunni groups have denounced what they say is a "Shiite peril" and the opening of several Shiite mosques in Khartoum.
They have asked authorities to close down the Iranian embassy's cultural centre and to prevent it from holding conferences which they say are being used for propaganda purposes.
"Shiite penetration in Sudan has become possible because of a lack of control on the part of the authorities," the Muslim Brotherhood's Sudan country representative, Sadiq Abdullah Abdel-Majid, said.
In the same year, an Iranian exhibit at the Khartoum International Book Fair was closed by authorities after it displayed books that allegedly contained blasphemous content against Sunni Islam.
But Sudanese authorities in 2009 allowed Shiites to hold a public celebration on the occasion of the birthday of Imam Al-Mahdi, a messiah-like figure for the sect.
Government sources at the time told said that the government did not oppose Shiite activities in the country because "it's linked to the good relations with Iran and the government doesn't want any interference to damage these relations".