Washington — The Sudanese foreign minister Ali Karti criticized the government for allowing Iranian naval warships to dock in the Red Sea coastal city of Port Sudan late last month in remarks that confirmed reports of rifts within the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) over ties with Tehran.
"In February [of this year] these ships came and asked that it [be given permission to] anchor in Port Sudan and we got this request formally in the ministry of foreign affairs," Karti said in an interview with privately owned Blue Nile TV on Saturday night.
"The view of the Sudanese foreign ministry that these ships should not [be allowed] to dock and we spoke with the defense minister and submitted our opinion to the president of the republic and the decision [was made] that these ships are not to dock [in Port Sudan]" the top Sudanese diplomat disclosed.
But this time around Karti said that he found about the Iranian warships visiting the country "through the media".
The minister reiterated that had he been consulted he would have again advised against receiving the Iranian navy ships.
"Even now I would have said that we don't need these problems [associated with the Iranian warships]," Karti asserted.
Last month the Sudanese government accused Israel of carrying out an airstrike against a weapons factory in Khartoum killing four people. The Jewish state refused to confirm or deny involvement in line with the long-standing policy of not commenting on covert operations.
But Amos Gilad, a senior Israeli defense official, lashed out at Sudan following the incident accusing it of supplying Hamas led government in Gaza strip with weapons.
"It is clear that it [Sudan] supports the smuggling of munitions, or it helps Gaza. In actuality, these munitions pass through Egypt, so it is endangering its major neighbor, Egypt," Gilad told Israeli Army Radio.
Khartoum rejected reports that the factory is a hub used and overseen by Iran to deliver ammunitions to any other party outside Sudan.
"We confirm what everyone knows - Iran is not in need of weapons made in Sudan, whether for itself or for its allies" the Sudanese foreign ministry said adding that Israel is "trying hard to leak misleading information through various sources known to be connected to Israel in an effort to provide justifications and pretexts for its abominable action".
"This includes talk about an alleged relation between the Yarmouk compound production and Iran, Syria, Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon," the statement said.
But few days after the alleged airstrike two Iranian navy ships - a helicopter carrier and a destroyer - stopped in Port Sudan for four days fueling speculations about the timing being linked to the bombing of the factory.
However, Sudanese army and other officials said that the visit was pre-planned before the airstrike and aimed at sharing military expertise.
In the TV interview the Sudanese foreign minister said that whoever in the government that authorized the visit of the Iranian ships did not know that it will coincide with the airstrike.
Karti said that when Khartoum refused to allow the Iranian to dock their ships earlier this year it went and used a port in an unspecified Arab Gulf state. A source familiar with the case said the minister was referring to Saudi Arabia.
A frustrated Karti emphasized that this event underscores the lack of coordination within government agencies.
"We frequently complained about it and even in the national assembly that we find difficulties in conducting our work abroad because of issues that are related to foreign policy that the foreign ministry should have been consulted about," he said.
"For example; expelling the aid agencies despite my conviction that these groups hurt Sudan's interests and there were ample reasons to kick them out; but if I was consulted at the foreign ministry...we would have had another route to deal with this issue," the minister said.
"But this happened away from the foreign ministry....This issue till now continues to hurt Sudan's interest more than these organizations were doing" Karti added.
Karti said that during a recent meeting an official from a country that had one of its aid groups expelled from East Sudan told him that they will not provide financial assistance as a result.
IRAN VS ARAB GULF STATES
The Sudanese foreign minister confirmed a report published this week that he warned his party during a meeting held last August that they will need to make a choice between strengthening ties with Arab Gulf states or with Iran.
"I am not saying we want to antagonize Iran but there is an opportunity for continuing relations with Iran to the extent that convinces the Arab Gulf states that these ties are not against its interests," he said.
"I know that our relations with Iran do not hurt the [Arab] Gulf [states]...but some of our actions [such as] refraining from explaining these issues [to the Gulf]. The issue of Iranian ships was one of them." Karti added.
He acknowledged that the decision not to allow the visit by Iranian vessels earlier this year was made with a view to how Arab Gulf states would feel. Karti added that the Arab Gulf states believe that there is more going on between Iran and Sudan behind the scenes which fuels mistrust with the Khartoum government.
The Sudanese minister also accused the West of feeding the Arab Gulf states with false information on its relationship with Iran.
The Saudi pro-government Al-Riyadh newspaper said 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.
"I say we don't have to announce that we severed our relations with Iran but up till now the limits of our ties with Iran are not yet understandable and not convincing to the [Arab] Gulf countries," Karti said.
The top diplomat said that they must work hard to address Gulf fears on its Iran links "even if Sudan should keep distance from these issues and look for another source [to compensate downgrading of Iran ties]".
But Karti admitted that there are disagreements within the government on the Iran ties. He also denied that the country received any request from Tehran to forge an alliance aimed at protecting the Red Sea.
RELATIONS WITH US & CHINA
The Sudanese foreign minister defended statements made by him to the radio this week in which he described the U.S. as "hypocritical" and "weak state" that is being run "by a small group of Jews with power and money".
This was in response to Washington's decision this month to renew the decade-long economic sanctions on Sudan.
Karti said that the U.S. deserves "far more" than what he said in his statements to the radio adding that this does not contradicts with his diplomatic role. He expressed disappointment that Obama's "change" motto was not reflected on the U.S. handling of Sudan and reneging of promises to lift sanctions.
The Sudanese foreign minister emphasized that the country does not threaten U.S. interests to warrant sanctions.
Asked why China has never used its veto power to support Sudan at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), Karti said that he doesn't think it was needed at any point on time.
Karti revealed that he paid a visit to Beijing to discuss primarily the issue of the International Criminal Court (ICC).
The UNSC passed a resolution in 2005 to refer the situation in Sudan's western region of Darfur to the ICC while China, considered to be Sudan's closest allies, abstained rather than voting against it to the dismay of officials in Khartoum.
"I met the [Chinese] foreign minister with delegations from both sides and we tackled the non-talked about-before issues including this dossier [ICC]. He [China FM] said he absolutely never received a request [from Khartoum] to use the veto [against the ICC referral]," Karti said.
"He challenged me to come up with a request that came his way [regarding the veto request on ICC]" he added.
Karti suggested that while he does not want to blame his peers in the government he believes that the general feeling was that the ICC resolution would not pass due to the U.S. strong objection at the time.
Washington lifted its reservations after a paragraph was added to exempt its nationals from ICC jurisdiction.
The court has indicted top officials in Sudan including president Omer Hassan al-Bashir along with the defense minister and now governor of South Kordofan state for war crimes in Darfur.