US decision on Sudan sanctions hangs in the balance

Donald Trump is due to revoke sweeping economic sanctions on Sudan permanently on Wednesday, but divisions running through his administration, a bipartisan political backlash and the US president’s own unpredictability have put the decision in doubt. The Obama administration relieved sanctions on Sudan temporarily as one of its parting shots in January, citing recent “positive actions” from stemming conflict to counterterrorism.

The interim measure, which still leaves in place some sanctions relating to abuses in Darfur and elsewhere, is due to be made permanent by July 12. But several people familiar with the discussions told the Financial Times that the state department and the National Security Council at the White House were split over what to do and that the decision would come down to a “nail-biter”.

Several people consulted by the state department have advised it would be better to delay the decision, one person familiar with the matter said, who added that at least one person had argued it would be better to extract greater concessions from Sudan and lift sanctions in September. “No one wants to stick their head out,” said the person.

The indecision highlights the lack of clarity in policy and dearth of personnel at the heart of the Trump administration. It also points to long-term efforts to cultivate a closer relationship with a country that tends to polarise public opinion and which the US still labels a state sponsor of terror. The debate has drawn the most unlikely of bedfellows.

The Central Intelligence Agency and the UN appear to favour lifting the sanctions; Hollywood star George Clooney and the Christian conservative right want them to remain. Sudan, a largely Arab country ruled by an authoritarian Islamist regime, was first labelled a state sponsor of terrorism in 1993 — a designation it still shares with Iran and Syria.

At the time, it hosted Osama bin Laden in the capital Khartoum. President Omar al-Bashir, an army colonel with a penchant for dancing who took power during a 1989 Islamist coup, is separately accused of genocide and other crimes. He has evaded arrest and trial at the International Criminal Court for seven years. Cumulative economic sanctions have imposed a heavy toll, making US trade and transactions impossible and cutting off the continent’s third-largest country from international finance. “Sudanese haven’t been allowed to transfer a penny in or out of Sudan for more than 20 years — the penalties inflicted on the people have been enormous,” Ibrahim Ghandour, Sudan’s foreign minister, told the Financial Times.

“We haven’t had spare parts or important imported drugs against HIV; businessmen used to take large amounts of cash in suitcases. They are interested in doing just enough only to have the sanctions lifted — we’ve known this government for 29 years and they never will change Omer Ismail, Enough Project “The US government is quite satisfied with the implementation of the five-track plan and this is why we are expecting a positive outcome. But of course that depends on the administration,” he said of the five areas singled out for “sustained” improvement, which include intelligence and aid.

US secretary of state Rex Tillerson is due to make his recommendation to Mr Trump based on the opinion of the US agencies that deal with these specific areas, but the ultimate decision will rest with the president. Mr Trump has repeatedly sought to put pressure on or unwind Mr Obama’s legislative legacy, including on healthcare, climate change, Cuba and Iran.

A state department spokeswoman said late last month: “We’re not sure what is going to happen with the sanctions.” The UN country team in Sudan weighed into the fraught debate on Monday when it urged the US for “a positive decision on US sanctions relief”. It cited “a marked improvement in humanitarian access over the past six months” and decline in conflict since sanctions were lifted.

But campaigners warn that Sudan is still relentlessly pursuing marginalised groups in areas including the Nuba mountains, where people fled aerial attacks to hide in aid camps and caves. “The government of Sudan does not deserve the lifting of sanctions,” said Omer Ismail at the Enough Project, a George Clooney-backed lobby group, citing continuing abuse and intimidation of civilians in conflict areas.

A bipartisan letter from 53 members of Congress this month also urged Mr Trump to reimpose sanctions, saying the administration was too short-staffed to make a decision. It also accuses Sudan of “state-sponsored persecution of Christians”. “We write to request that you delay lifting these sanctions for one year or until your administration has been able to fully staff the department of state and national security council,” says the letter, arguing it is impossible to determine whether Sudan has met requirements without the full complement of senior officials.

Even those who support lifting sanctions on the technical and procedural merits of the case balk at the prospect of such political opposition and consider advocating for a delay, say those familiar with the matter.

That would probably disappoint the US intelligence community, which in recent years has worked closely with Sudan on fundamentalism in Libya, Somalia and elsewhere.

The country, whose pervasive security apparatus is infamous, has also turned its back on Iran in the past couple of years, drawing closer to Saudi Arabia, a US ally. In March, newly appointed CIA chief Mike Pompeo invited Mohamed Atta, Sudan’s intelligence chief, to the US on his first official visit.

Two months later, Sudan also hired lobbyists Squire Patton Boggs to lobby Washington for sanctions relief, paying $40,000 a month. Officials say Sudan’s terror designation, which is not yet slated for removal, inhibits joint intelligence operations.

“Sudan is one of the countries that is co-operating on counterterrorism most in the region — it’s a paradox we find ourselves on such a [terror] list,” said Mr Ghandour, foreign minister.

Source: Financial Times