Trump Administration Gives Sudan a Way to Come in From the Cold

The United States should stop listing Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism, Sudanese foreign minister tells FP, as Khartoum seeks to boost its crumbling economy.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Sudanese Foreign Minister Al-Dirdiri Mohamed Ahmed gives a press conference in Khartoum on June 24. (Ashraf Shazly/AFP/Getty Images)
Sudanese Foreign Minister Al-Dirdiri Mohamed Ahmed gives a press conference in Khartoum on June 24. (Ashraf Shazly/AFP/Getty Images)

While Washington was transfixed with the U.S. midterm elections on Tuesday, senior State Department officials quietly met with Sudan’s top diplomat to finalize a plan that would enable the East African country to shed its designation as a state sponsor of terrorism.

The plan, a second phase in the normalization of Washington’s relations with a country it has blacklisted since 1993, outlines steps that Sudan must take to lift crippling sanctions that have helped bring the country to the brink of economic collapse. The framework offers a chance for Sudan to shake off its status as an international pariah after decades of isolation from the West. It also reflects the Trump administration’s growing interest in working with Khartoum to combat terrorist threats and expand U.S. diplomatic heft in Africa as China and Russia vie for influence of their own.

The Obama administration offered Sudan relief from a 2-decade-old trade embargo shortly before Donald Trump took office, in recognition of the country’s help in battling the Islamic State, progress on improving the country’s human rights situation, and other political objectives. But Sudan remained formally designated as a state sponsor of terrorism, which means Khartoum has not seen many economic dividends to date.

Sudanese Foreign Minister Al-Dirdiri Mohamed Ahmed told Foreign Policy on Tuesday during his visit to Washington that initial relief “is not having, up to now, any particular impact in Sudan.” Even with some sanctions lifted, foreign investors and banks are still wary of investing in a country that the United States designates as a state sponsor of terrorism, he said.

Ahmed added that if the designation were lifted, his country would ask the International Monetary Fund for urgent assistance to help address its ballooning debt crisis.

The State Department, which announced the plan on Wednesday, said Sudan has already made strides in countering terrorism, reducing conflict, and opening humanitarian aid access to the country’s restive regions contested by rebels.

Under the terms of the arrangement, Sudan must make progress in six areas if it wants to shed the terrorism sponsor designation: expand cooperation on counterterrorism, improve human rights protections including freedoms of religion and press, increase humanitarian access, cease fighting with rebels and work toward peace talks, showcase it has ceased supporting terrorism, and sever ties and cooperation with North Korea.

“The United States is prepared to initiate the process of rescinding Sudan’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism if the determination is made that all of the relevant statutory criteria have been met,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement on Wednesday. 

Senior U.S. officials, including former CIA Director John Brennan, have publicly said Sudan has not sponsored terrorism in decades—a designation former President Bill Clinton’s administration first put on the country in 1993.

Even if Sudan complies with all the requirements of the road map, it’s not clear how long it would take to shed the terrorism sponsor designation.

“I don’t think we would be, of course, expecting the matter to be that protracted,” said Ahmed, the foreign minister. A State Department official told reporters in a phone briefing that if Sudan made progress, the decision of whether to take Sudan off the list could be made in six months to four years.

“These are things that we believe are achievable within a short time frame, but it’s really going to be up to the Sudanese in terms of how well they addressed the elements of phase two. That will influence how quickly this can happen,” the official said.

While the Trump administration has busied itself with dismantling much of former President Barack Obama’s foreign-policy legacies, Sudan stands as a rare example of continuity. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan is leading the Trump administration’s Sudan policy, signaling high-level diplomatic buy-in even though the president himself has shown little interest in Africa.

Obama’s decision in the waning months of his administration to relax the trade embargo on Sudan angered some members of Congress and nongovernmental organizations that felt Washington was offering an olive branch to an undeserving regime, which helped carry out a genocide in Sudan’s Darfur region beginning in 2003. The United States’ initial relief did not lift separate sanctions tied to Sudan’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism or congressionally mandated sanctions related to its role in the Darfur conflict, where an estimated 400,000 people were killed and millions displaced after conflict broke out.

John Prendergast, the director of the human rights advocacy organization the Enough Project, sharply criticized the State Department’s plan and said Sudan still harbored radical groups aligned with terrorist organizations. Maintaining Sudan as a designated state sponsor of terrorism is one of the few ways that Washington has to try to change the country’s behavior, he said.

“The U.S. government should maintain the last levers of pressure on Khartoum, in particular the designation as a state sponsor of terror, and hold the Sudanese regime to account for its support for extremist groups, egregious rights violations, serious security threats, grand corruption, and disastrous economic mismanagement,” he said.

Proponents of mending ties say the sanctions and designation are harming average Sudanese citizens the most. Further, 25 years of sanctions have produced no positive changes from the Sudanese regime, where President Omar al-Bashir has kept a firm grip on power since 1989. They say the prospect of sanctions relief and lifting the terrorism sponsor designation represents the first opportunity in decades for the United States to compel Sudan to carry out meaningful reforms on human rights and negotiate peace with rebel groups.

“They are on the verge of financial collapse, so there is a new impetus for them to come around on these things,” said Cameron Hudson, a former State Department official who worked on Sudan issues, who is now executive director of the Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

But the United States has to ensure that it uses wrings out serious reform before lifting Sudan’s state sponsor of terrorism designation. “In a relationship where the U.S. has always lacked leverage, [lifting the designation] is a huge piece of leverage. From a tactical viewpoint, it’s the last thing you want to give away,” Hudson said.

While Washington deliberates, Ahmed, the foreign minister, told FP that Khartoum was expanding its relationship with China, which has already offered an economic lifeline by writing off billions of dollars of debt and offering Sudan the lion’s share of a new $60 billion aid package to African countries.

“We understand quite well that the world is no longer a unipolar world,” Ahmed said. “China for instance has already given us loans in terms of $7 billion. China did not ask us about our [state sponsor of terrorism] status. Likewise, Turkey and Russia are also out there to help countries in Africa,” he said. “We know that quite well.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer