New York, Asharq Al-Awsat- There are major differences in view points within the US Administration over Afghanistan; similarly there are differences in view points over Sudan, even if these differences are accompanied by less noise.
Within the US Administration there are those who want to normalize the relations with Khartoum, support the settlement efforts in Darfur, and implement completely the agreements between the north and the south in order to prevent the secession scenario, because of the grave consequences that can stem from it at the regional and international levels. These people include US Special Envoy for Sudan Maj-Gen Scott Gration, who considers that US-Sudanese rapprochement serves security in this vital region of the world, especially as the security of the Horn of Africa is undergoing a difficult test because of the events in Somalia and Yemen.
However, within the Administration there are others who are not enthusiastic about an immediate normalization with Sudan. They are concerned about Sudan’s record in human rights, and its close relations with Iran and Hamas, and they think that it still is “a magnetic center of attraction” for the fundamentalist movements.
However, in an interview with Asharq al-Awsat Ghazi Salaheddin, adviser to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, plays down the reasons for the US or regional concern over Sudan’s relations with Iran. On the sidelines of his participation in the meetings of the UN General Assembly, Salaheddin explains that what is being circulated about Sudan being the agent of Iran in the region is not true.
He refuses to talk about Iranian infiltration of Sudan, and he explains: “These are exaggerations. We do not deal with Iran as its agents in the region. Any portrayal of the relations as an agency in the region or a conspiracy is an extremely erroneous analysis. Iran has the right to be a strong country. I am astonished by the stance that considers that Iran ought to be a pacifist or weak country. Why do we ask the others to be so? I act independently, and in my relations with Iran I move from the starting point of sovereignty. Let there be cooperation between us. Sudan is under an arms ban imposed by the United States and Europe; I cannot bring arms from the United States or Europe, why should I not buy arms from Russia or China? If I buy arms from Russia or China, why should I not buy them from Iran?”
Dr Ghazi Salaheddin also discusses about the reports talking about Iranian weapons’ factories in Sudan. He points out: “Even if this is true, what is wrong with this? What is wrong in having an arms’ industry in a country that defends it borders. Sudan is the biggest African country, and it has many problems that require it to have a strong defense system. If we manage to construct weapons’ factories, what is wrong with that?”
Salaheddin, the official in charge of the north-south peace dossier for decades, and one of the Sudanese officials most involved in the peace process, criticized the government experience of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement [SPLM] in the south, and describes it as unfortunate. He stresses that the Sudanese Government is ready for all the scenarios during the self-determination referendum in the south in 2011, including the civil war scenario.
The following is the text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What have you discussed with the US officials you met in New York?
[Salaheddin] We discussed the bilateral relations, the implementation of the peace process, and Darfur. In Washington, I met members of the US Congress, and individuals whom I know to have political influence in the United States.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you need a lobby in Washington to confront those in the US Administration who are not enthusiastic about normalization with Sudan?
[Salaheddin] This depends on what you mean by lobby. These contacts I conducted could be interpreted as lobbying. However, they were not lengthy contacts, because they were conducted for one day, and I considered it appropriate to contact some individuals from whom we had found response in the past, and they opened their doors for us to listen to our viewpoint. The visit is aimed at more contact with these individuals. Ultimately this is for the benefit of the common issues we are discussing. However, dealing with the US arena remains mixed up with many problems, because the US system is complicated and complex and its assessments are not necessarily based on the same logic. There is pressure from lobbies that operate in Washington and also on the popular sentiments. In all our contacts we try to explain the situation in Sudan, and to win friends within the US society.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is it true that US Vice President Joe Biden and US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice are not very enthusiastic about a normalization with Sudan, and that they still have reservations on this issue?
[Salaheddin] We cannot know categorically who is for and who is against. Personally, I have not heard anything about Vice President Biden. I believe that regardless of his personal opinions he is committed to the line of President Barack Obama. However, there are indications that Ms Susan Rice still adopts a hostile stance toward Sudan. Anyway, this is their business, and this is their government, and we cannot interfere. We present our viewpoint whenever we have the opportunity whether the person to whom we present it is hostile toward Sudan, or accepts the evidence of Sudan. Whenever we have the opportunity we communicate with them.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the volume of Sudanese-US security cooperation now? Have you provided Washington or US Envoy Gration with any specific information they asked for within the framework of the war on terror?
[Salaheddin] No, no, the situation is not like this. From the beginning, Gration’s mission has not touched upon this issue. I am the person responsible for negotiating with him, and from the beginning this issue has never been discussed, neither has he come to pick up information. It is true that there is cooperation between the United States and Sudan in the field of terrorism, but this cooperation is not linked to third parties. I would like to explain this point clearly. This cooperation has not touched upon a third party. The United States had suspicions, but without evidence, that Sudan was involved in supporting groups, which the United States classified as terrorist groups, and that Sudan might be involved in developing weapons. The security cooperation has focused on removing the apprehensions in these fields, and on demonstrating that Sudan is not a place for training terrorists or involved in the production of proscribed weapons. The cooperation is not directed against a third party, be it a state, a group, or individuals.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In the past days Sudan witnessed the Juba conference between factions of the Sudanese opposition and the SPLM, but the ruling National Congress Party did not participate. Why is this?
[Salaheddin] The National Congress Party objected to the way the conference was organized, because the SPLM organized it without consulting the other political powers; at least the National Congress Party, as a principal party, was not consulted. Moreover, other parties – such as the Democratic Unionist Party – were not consulted, and they boycotted the conference. The aims of the conference itself were unclear to the National Congress Party. Is it a real conference that carries sincere intentions to find solutions for the problems of the country? What is the new factor it will bring? Or is it a conference that is held merely for political noise? These issues were not clear to the National Congress Party, and until this moment the aims of the conference are not clear to us, or even to its organizers.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You have important elections in 2010. Will the results of the elections determine the future unity or secession in Sudan?
[Salaheddin] Yes, I think these elections are very important, and this is what makes us insist on what came in Naivasha Agreement, namely that the elections precede the referendum. Why is this? First, because this is what we agreed on in Naivasha. Second, because taking a grave decision such as secession ought to be done by elected institutions that have the legitimacy of being elected and not appointed institutions. Third, which is very important, because elections are a transformation operation, i.e. the elections might redraw the political map, and other powers might be introduced. The elections might reshape and reorganize the political arena, and might bring up a new leadership. This process might present new ideas that lead to unity. Therefore, the elections are very important.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How does the ruling National Congress Party prepare for the elections? There are efforts to establish an alliance between the opposition parties in the north and the SPLM in the south in order to topple the current government and President Omar al-Bashir?
[Salaheddin] There are continuing technical preparations, including reorganizing the party from within. We have a general conference that will convene within days. The political preparations are as follows: Can we reach agreement on the political program with other parties, or can we reach agreement on contracting an alliance with other parties? According to our study of political history in Sudan since 1953 there has never been an electoral alliance between the political powers before the elections. The electoral alliances were established after the elections for a simple reason, namely because those belonging to political parties resist the idea of offering concessions in a geographical constituency to a specific person. After the conclusion of the elections, such a process can take place. However, it is possible theoretically in some cases – I am not saying that the National Congress Party has taken a decision to contract an alliance with some side – to have an alliance in the presidential elections. This is in the sense that there is unanimity on one candidate in exchange for a specific distribution of posts when the government is formed. Theoretically, this is possible, but so far it has not been done in practice, neither by the National Congress Party nor by others. In the ruling National Congress Party, we are not afraid of a big alliance led by the SPLM in the south against the National Congress. I do not think that this alliance will be established from the beginning, and if it is established, we are not afraid of it. We are ready to conduct free and impartial elections, to compete with the others, and we will see who wins.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The relations between the ruling National Congress Party and the SPLM in the south have reached a grave turning point. What are the reasons for this? You are partners in the Naivasha Agreement, and partners in government, is there negligence in the implementation of the agreements?
[Salaheddin] I believe that the experience of the SPLM in governing the south has been an unfortunate one. Now you see security chaos, confrontations, and armed conflicts in the south. Naturally it is easy to say that the National Congress is the one that incites violence in the south.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But this is actually what is being said. It is said that you mobilize groups to stir up violence in the south before the elections and the referendum?
[Salaheddin] Of course this is not true. Anyway, there is the United Nations and the international mission, and there is an intelligence organization operating in the country. They all have not indicated that this is true. Not a single impartial report that has been issued said that the National Congress or the north army participated in these operations. This is a southern problem, and it is the responsibility of the SPLM because in reality so far it has not been able to govern the south in a way that is convincing to the southern citizen. In my opinion it is this situation that generated an internal state within the SPLM against contracting an alliance with the National Congress, and it became acceptable and easy to throw the responsibility on the shoulders of the National Congress, and to say that the National Congress is the one that hinders and the one that conspires. This is an unhealthy state, because it is beneficial for any person, whether at the individual or the collective levels, to define himself as an individual, and not as attached to others. It would be better for the SPLM to build itself and its political movement in isolation from the National Congress in the sense that the National Congress is not responsible for the strength or weakness of the SPLM. However, the psychological state which now prevails over the SPLM or over some of its leaders is to attribute all problems to the National Congress. The National Congress can leave the political arena, but the problems within the SPLM will remain.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you still consider the SPLM a partner in government?
[Salaheddin] Naturally it is a partner in practice. However, we have objections; we always prefer to discuss these objections with the SPLM at the internal meetings because we are keen to have this partnership.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is the National Congress Party annoyed by the arms deals, the infrastructure, and the installations undertaken by the Southern Government, which might indicate a desire to secede?
[Salaheddin] Installations of what, and in what direction?
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Communication installations. Special communication institutions that are separate from those of the north?
[Salaheddin] Yes, there is real and legitimate concern. If there is a process of arming in the south, the question will be: Against whom are these weapons going to be directed? Naturally the SPLM denies this, and says that there is no arming process. However, whatever the case may be, the question remains.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What information has Khartoum about the arming of the south? Are there any real suspicions or evidence that there is an arming process in the south?
[Salaheddin] These are the official reports by the intelligence organizations, and these reports are supported by other reports, such as those published in Jane’s Defense Bulletin. There are other intelligence reports that indicate this fact. However, the SPLM rejects these reports as not correct. Anyway, there is a ceasefire agreement that allows inspection in the ceasefire areas between the north and the south, and this agreement can be applied so that people can see whether or not there is an accumulation of weapons in the south.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Then, can the government carry out an inspection operation in the south?
[Salaheddin] Not the government. There is the Ceasefire Political Commission, which is one of the mechanisms established by the Naivasha Agreement. The Ceasefire Political Commission consists of members of both the northern and southern sides, and the participating international forces, and it can investigate these issues.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Why has not the commission investigated after the reports of the Ukrainian ship and the other reports about the arming operation in the south?
[Salaheddin] Perhaps it is investigating. I do not know.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Salva Kiir said at the opening of the Juba conference: “Sudan is at a crossroads, and the chances of secession and unity are equal.” Is this a negative indicator?
[Salaheddin] No, this is a good progress. In the past they considered the chances of secession and unity to be 90 percent for secession and 10 percent for unity. Now, if he says that it is 50 for secession and 50 percent for unity, this is progress.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Why have the indicators of unity improved in the south?
[Salaheddin] This is a question that ought to be addressed to him. I have not seen his statements. However, if he said this, then it is a great progress in the direction of unity. It used to be said by southern politicians, and even by northern ones, that 90 percent of the south will vote for secession. I am against secession, but I believe that the south has the right to self-determination. However, the result to which we all should be committed, including the SPLM, is unity. This is because it is clear that secession will have grave consequences for the region, for Africa, and for the south. Anyway, this should not make us interfere in their decision.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think that the southern leaders are convinced of secession, and that the words given to the press do not reflect their thinking?
[Salaheddin] The truth is that I suspect the words of Salva Kiir. I have not heard his statements. However, it is difficult for me to imagine that he gave a statement in this sense, i.e. saying that the two options are equal.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The major disagreement between the north and the south still is over who has the right to participate in the referendum in 2011. You insist that the southerners who live in the north have the right to vote, but the SPLM rejects this?
[Salaheddin] Of course we insist that the southerners in the north should vote. If the SPLM wants the southerners in the United States to vote, then why can the southerners in the north not vote? What kind of logic is this?
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is there any progress in the talks between you?
[Salaheddin] No, we still are at this point. The basic stance of the SPLM is that the southerners in the north should not vote unless they return to the south. This means that if the person lives in Port Sudan, he should go to register himself in the south, then go back again after three months to vote. The question is: Why? If the person has the right to vote, why can not he vote anywhere?
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is the SPLM apprehensive that the government would rig the votes of the southerners in the north?
[Salaheddin] I do not know. It is not clear for me why the SPLM adopts this stance. It might be its internal stance, apprehension that the votes might be rigged. However, do you not think that those in the north also have the right to suspect that the government in the south might rig the votes? Let us explain something, and distinguish between concerns about rigging and the correct procedure at any referendum; the concerns about rigging should be dealt with on their own, and let us study the possible guarantees that could be provided so that there would be no rigging. The correct procedure at any referendum is to give the voter the right, and not to prevent him from going to the polling stations. It is not our duty to make it difficult for the citizen. This is the correct procedure at the elections and referendums in any country in the world. The stance of preventing any southern citizen in the north from voting unless he returns to the south is an insuperable stance.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is Khartoum ready for the possibility that the south might secede in security and strategy in the fields of borders, wealth, population rights, and other issues?
[Salaheddin] This is exactly what we are trying to prepare for through an agreement on the referendum law. The referendum law is not merely procedural issues. There are objective issues and there are the post-referendum issues. There are the issues of water; population, the northern population in the south and the southern population in the north and their future; and the tribes across the borders and the historical rights of these tribes, be they southern tribes with interests in the north or vice versa. If the decision is secession, there will be the issues of the international treaties, including for instance the Nile Waters Treaty, and the assets and debts. If there is a partnership, and it is dissolved, we will negotiate over the debts and the assets; therefore, I take a share and the other one takes a share, and so on.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But the SPLM has been in government only for a few years; why should it shoulder the burden of debts that have been there for decades?
[Salaheddin] The logic here is that the debts have been accumulated not only because of the projects in the north, but also because of the projects in the south. These are debts that have been accumulated along 50 years, and some of them are because of projects in Southern Sudan. Thus, this is a live issue, and it is not related to the debts of the northern government. Anyway, this is an issue for discussion. For this reason, part of the preparation for the possibility of secession – of which you are talking – is to reach agreement over these issues, because a referendum and secession cannot take place without assuming responsibilities. We have said to some of the leaders of the movement [SPLM]: If you are thinking of secession without responsibilities, you are mistaken, as there has to be a very clear commitment from both sides to the consequences of secession. However, there is another part of the secession arrangement, which is hypothetical. You have spoken of the possibility of war. Some people ask about the north’s readiness for war. I say: We are ready within our capabilities. Theoretically a war can erupt between us and a neighboring country; have we prepared for this possible war? We are undertaking the preventative political action so that such a war does not erupt.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are there similarities between Sudan and the experience of the Yemen war in the nineties?
[Salaheddin] The war in Yemen was a unification war.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Also the war in Sudan could be a unification war?
[Salaheddin] No, unless the government in Sudan is changed. If we become absent from the arena, if the ruling National Congress Party becomes absent from the political arena, and a new political power emerges, then this power will present its thesis according to what it considers appropriate. However, I doubt that political powers – at least in the near future – will stand up and say: “The secession of the south is not legitimate, and we will fight and go to war to restore unity.” I doubt that. On the contrary, preliminary indications of secession have appeared in the north. There are politicians in the north who say that the secession of the south is for the best, and they favor the secession scenario. However, I do not think that these powers are a majority. But at least it is a new phenomenon to which we have to pay attention. In the past no one in the north accepted the term secession; now, there are those who accept secession, and consider that all the good things are in secession, and all the bad things are in unity.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Chairman of Hamas Political Bureau Khalid Mishal was in Khartoum at the beginning of this month to discuss the relations between Sudan and Hamas, and he met Omar al-Bashir. What are the relations between Khartoum and Hamas?
[Salaheddin] The relations are relations between the Sudanese National Congress Party and Hamas, and the party has relations with Fatah. The Sudanese Government cooperates in an open way with all the powers on the Palestinian arena, not just with Hamas; it cooperates with Hamas, the Popular Front [for the Liberation of Palestine], Jihad, and Fatah.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What have you discussed with Khalid Mishal?
[Salaheddin] We discussed the Palestinian situation. We support strongly the Palestinian-Palestinian dialog, we support unity, and we warn against any internal split.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you offer any aid to Hamas, whether financial or military?
[Salaheddin] No, we do not offer financial aid, and we cannot offer military aid.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about the report of the Israeli bombing of 17 trucks in Eastern Sudan that were carrying Iranian weapons to Gaza via the Sudanese and the Egyptian territories?
[Salaheddin] There is no evidence that they were going to Gaza. There are smuggling operations via all countries and not via Sudan alone. Even in that case, the story says that these weapons originated in the country A, then were sent to country B, then were moved to country C, namely Sudan, and were on their way to country D and then to country E, i.e. Gaza; this story has forgotten all the countries and focused only on Sudan. This means that the theory is that these weapons did not originate in Sudan, but were sent to Sudan in transit in smuggling operations that occur and have not ceased. We resist smuggling, and we cooperate with the brethren in Egypt and in the other neighboring countries, but sometimes weapons are smuggled.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What kind of weapons were they?
[Salaheddin] Light weapons. However, I doubt that they were weapons in the real sense. According to the reports we received, most probably they were smuggling individuals. The smuggling operations include individuals, weapons, proscribed goods, and drugs. All this happens among all countries.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The reason of the contradictions between the stories is that Sudan has kept quiet about the attack on its territories for two months. Why was that?
[Salaheddin] Sudan was trying to investigate the incident to clarify the picture, because we did not have clear evidence.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] With regard to the Sudanese-Iranian relations, some people speak of Iranian infiltration of Sudan, and indications of a clear Iranian influence in Sudan?
[Salaheddin] These are exaggerations. I believe that the trade balance between us and Iran is very low. This is unfortunate; because we are keen to have strong relations with the entire Muslim world. We do not deal with Iran as its agents in the region. Iran is an ancient country, and we deal with it as an independent country. Also we aspire to establish strong relations with the United States and the European countries. Any portrayal of the relations as an agency in the region or a conspiracy is an extremely erroneous analysis, on which there is no evidence, and so far no one has proved that Sudan plays such a role in the region.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about the military cooperation? Iranian defense minister visited Sudan recently, and said that Sudan was the cornerstone of the Iranian strategy in Africa?
[Salaheddin] I doubt that he said so. Does this mean that we are agents?
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Perhaps the meaning is that the relations are deep. As you know, recently Iran has signed nuclear agreements with African countries to help them build nuclear energy generators?
[Salaheddin] Anyway, there is no nuclear cooperation between Iran and us. The relations with Iran are natural. There are issues toward which our stances are the same. Our relations with Iran are not directed against a third party, and certainly they are not at the expense of our Arab relations. Iran has the right to be a strong country. I am astonished by the stance that considers that Iran ought to be a pacifist or weak country. Why do we ask the others to be so? I act independently, and in my relations with Iran I move from the starting point of sovereignty. Let there be cooperation between us. Sudan is under an arms ban imposed by the United States and Europe; I cannot bring arms from the United States or Europe, why should I not buy arms from Russia or China? If I buy arms from Russia or China, why should I not buy them from Iran?
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you buy arms from Iran?
[Salaheddin] If this is available we buy. Why should we not?
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There are reports that there are Iranian arms’ factories in Sudan?
[Salaheddin] Even if this is true, what is wrong with this? What is wrong in having an arms’ industry in a country that defends it borders. Sudan is the biggest African country, and it has many problems that require it to have a strong defense system. If we manage to construct weapons’ factories, what is wrong with that?
[Asharq Al-Awsat] With Iranian expertise?
[Salaheddin] Or with any expertise. If I have been using Chinese and Russian expertise, and the Iranian expertise became available to me, why should I adopt a political stance and say: “I do not deal with Iran?”
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The discovery of the secret nuclear installation in Qom has aroused international concerns. What is the stance of Sudan?
[Salaheddin] The Iranian stance is that they want peaceful nuclear energy, and they do not employ their nuclear installations for military purposes. We ought to judge them on the basis of what they say. If it is proved that Iran is developing nuclear bombs, the neighboring countries will have the right to be apprehensive, and to demand that Iran stops these activities.