U.S. Delay in Lifting Sudan Sanctions Could Hinder Cooperation Plans

By Matina StevisFeaturesDow Jones Newswires

KHARTOUM, Sudan -- The Trump administration's move to delay a decision to permanantly lift sanctions on this African nation leaves the country an international pariah and could hinder efforts to cooperate on intelligence, counterterrorism and aid to South Sudan.

The State Department on Tuesday said despite progress by the strategically important nation of 40 million, it would put off until mid-October the widely expected ratification of an Obama-era policy that would bring the country back into the global fold.

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Senior administration officials involved in the process played down the extension on Wednesday, saying, "the stated intent is to lift the sanctions," which have been in place since 1998.

Sudan's presidency then pledged to suspend talks with the U.S. for the same period.

"We believe we don't have more to do," Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. "All the stakeholders from CIA to FBI to the State Department showed on various occasions their satisfaction with the progress."

Western diplomats in Khartoum said experts and civil servants working on five areas in which the U.S. was demanding changes from Sudan had recommended sanctions be lifted. These included opening humanitarian corridors, intelligence sharing and ending conflicts in parts of the country.

"It was the president who made the final decision," the senior administration official involved in the assessment said.

For President Omar Bashir -- the world's only sitting head of state wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court -- the Washington-led sanctions have changed little: He is firmly ensconced in power and has responded brutally to any protests against his 27-year rule.

Sudan was first placed on the list of state sponsors of terrorism in 1993, when it harbored Osama bin Laden and other terrorists in Khartoum, and was placed under comprehensive economic sanctions in 1998 by the Clinton administration after the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.

The sanctions were bolstered further in 2007 by President George W. Bush in response to worsening fighting in Darfur. Over the years, the government has been accused of fighting bloody wars against its people there and other peripheral regions of the country. The government has said those conflicts have ceased.

The Obama administration in January began taking steps to lift the trade embargo with Sudan as well as to unblock Sudanese government assets that have been frozen in various sanctions measures taken against the country.

The Trump administration faced a July 12 deadline to decide whether to make that relief permanent or not, and said late Tuesday it would delay the decision for three months but that the initial steps to ease sanctions would remain in place.

The path to lifting sanctions has been slowly transforming regional geopolitics, re-engaging Sudan as a key actor and ally of Sunni Saudi Arabia in Arab and Horn of Africa politics. Sudan is a strategic partner of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and is key in containing extremists from Libya.

"Six months is a short period to make an overwhelming transformation in humanitarian access and cessation of hostilities, but three months is unlikely to make a big difference," said Magnus Taylor, the regional expert for the International Crisis Group, referring to the reasoning behind the delay in lifting sanctions.

Mr. Taylor added that the government was "lobbied hard by human-rights groups and the Christian right lobby" and that their "argument is emotive and powerful." John Prendergast, a former Clinton administration official, and his Enough activist group advocated the delay, while a group of Democratic and Republican U.S. lawmakers wrote a letter last week asking for the same. The administration official declined to comment on the claim.

The senior administration official involved in the assessment of Sudan's sanctions stressed the importance of Sudan demonstrating it wasn't engaging with North Korea, calling it the top security priority for the Trump administration. Mr. Ghandour said the two countries have "absolutely no relations."

The Sudanese foreign minister attributed the delay to the Trump administration's full plate of issues at home and abroad.

"The current [U.S.] administration, has [a lot of issues] domestically and abroad. From the Gulf to Yemen, to Syria, to Iraq, to Afghanistan, to North Korea...up to the internal business of the issue of the postelection matters now being discussed in the media, to the pressure of the lobby groups and some congressmen," he said.

Write to Matina Stevis at matina.stevis@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

July 12, 2017 15:46 ET (19:46 GMT)