How Did Iranian Bullets Wind Up in Africa?

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A new report suggests the tight relationship between the Iranian and Sudanese militaries has consequences far beyond the Sudan's borders.

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Iran's President Ahmadinejad walks with Sudan's President al-Bashir at the Khartoum international airport on September 26, 2011. (Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters)

The Iranian bullets that a Conflict Armament Research report found throughout Africa probably weren't of the highest quality the Islamic Republic could offer. They were all made during the same three-year period at the beginning of the last decade -- it's likely they were military surplus or low-quality leftovers, sold at a discount to anyone looking for cheap ammo. But low-quality bullets are still deadly, and the CAR found Iranian munitions all over Africa, in 14 locations across nine countries, and with groups as diverse as a Tutsi militia in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and terrorists aligned with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. And there's evidence to suggest that Iran's closest African partner played an active role in funneling the ammunition throughout the continent.

Despite some very public internal disagreements, Sudan's nominally-Islamist National Congress Party government has positioned itself as a key ally of Iran, and of the collection of countries and militant groups opposed to American, Israeli and western policies in the Middle East. Ali Karti, Sudan's foreign minister, has publically spoken out against the country's tight military relations with Iran, and American policymakers have long viewed the NCP government as willing to abandon its close relationships with rogue states and terrorist groups if the right combination of incentives and inducements could be reached. But the moderate bloc inside the NCP doesn't seem to be winning out: Iran helps operate the sprawling Yarmouk weapons facility in Khartoum, a plant that stored a group of shipping containers that were targeted and practically vaporized by an airstrike in October, an attack that was likely Israel's doing. According to the Conflict Armament Research report, the Yarmouk is involved in the development of Iranian arms: "Yarmouk Industrial Complex in Khartoum serves as a production/onward shipment facility for Iranian/ Iranian-designed weapons," while plant personnel "visit Tehran for regular technical training on weapons or ammunition production." According to a 2006 Wikileaks cable, Yarmouk was also involved in the production of chemical and biological weapons material for Iran and Syria.

There are more recent developments as well. Hamas interior minister Fathi Hammad visited Khartoum this week, where he announced that fighters from the Palestinian Islamist group would soon be training in Sudan. The country is still a hub for activity detrimental to the broader international community's interests, and the CAR report provides additional evidence that Sudan is engaging in destabilizing and probably even illegal activities.

Someone inside the Sudanese government was still sewing violence and chaos in the South. And they were using Iranian arms to do it.

A trans-African Sudanese weapons pipeline is only hinted at in the report -- no one knows how Iranian and Sudanese bullets traveled across the Sahel to Niger and Cote D'Ivoire, or ended up with Tutsi militants in the South Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There's no proof that either the Sudanese or Iranian governments were facilitating this transfer of munitions to such far-flung corners of Africa. But James Bevan, director of CAR, says that Sudanese and Iranian ammunition could often be found in the same clip in Niger, northern Cote D'Ivoire and the DRC.

In Cote D'Ivoire, Bevan says "there's a distinct correlation" between the presence of Iranian and Sudanese munitions in the possession of anti-government forces in 2009. "If you take an individual rebel's weapon and unload it, you're going to guarantee that you have Iranian and Sudanese ammunition loaded into the same magazine." In other words, Iranian or Sudanese ammunition would almost never be found without the other. CAR had a similar finding with jihadi groups in Niger. "We recorded Iranian ammunition with [Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb]-aligned groups operating in Niger. In the same haul, we also found Sudanese ammunition." This combination of munitions has been found in three countries bordering Mali. It's reasonable to assume that ammunition from Tehran and Khartoum will be found on the Sahel's latest battlefield as well. "We're at a really early stage in this hypothesis," says Bevan, "but it looks like there are code groupings of Iranian and Sudanese ammunition which are extending right across the Sahara region into West Africa."

Intermingled ammunition isn't the only thing CAR found in the present-day South Sudan, where pro-Khartoum militias were discovered to be using rocket launchers of Iranian design. The timeline in which the Iranian arms were provided to these groups, which include David Yau-Yau's rebel group and the anti-government South Sudan Liberation Army, suggest that the Iranian arms were part of Khartoum's efforts to either derail or handicap the ongoing peace process in the country's south. According to the report, a "significant quantity of Iranian ordnance in service with Khartoum-backed forces" was first observed in 2012 and 2011 in South Sudan's restive Jonglei and Unity States, respectively. A referendum vote, in which South Sudanese opted to secede from Sudan, was held on January 30, 2011, and independence arrived in July of that year. Thanks to American pressure, Sudan was largely cooperative throughout the referendum process. But either as a matter of official policy, or by virtue of Khartoum's notoriously compartmentalized power structure, someone inside the Sudanese government was nevertheless succeeding in sewing violence and chaos in the South. And they were using Iranian arms to do it.

In Darfur, the role of Iranian weaponry is a bit more speculative. All of the Iranian bullets found in Africa by CAR were made between 2003 and 2006 -- CAR believes that the bullets found on pro-Khartoum militias in Darfur were supplied between 2003, when the ammunition was made, and 2008, when it was discovered on the battlefield. Assuming a six-month or year-long lag between the ammunition's production and its delivery to Darfur, it is possible the bullets reached the Khartoum-backed militants in late 2003 and early 2004, one of the bloodiest periods of the Darfur conflict -- up to 30,000 people were killed, and another 100,000 displaced, in the 12 months leading up to June of 2004. Iranian arms could have played a role in that escalation as well. Information from the Stockholm International Peace Institute's registry of interstate conventional arms transfers suggests this might be the case: in 2003, Iran made $15.2 worth of declared conventional arms sales to Sudan, the second-highest total for Iran-to-Sudan arms transfers that decade.

The reason for the presence of Iranian munitions is far vaguer in the DRC, where mixed Sudanese and Iranian-produced ammunition was used by the Forces Républicaines Fédéralistes, a militia consisting of members of the Banyumulenge, a Tutsi sub-group in South Kivu. It's unknown how this militia, out of the dozens of armed organizations in the DRC, ended up with the ammunition. "Hard to say," Jason Stearns, a leading expert on the DRC, wrote in an email, "but the FRF and most other militants in the region buy their weapons from the national armies of the Congo, Burundi, Tanzania and Rwanda. It's likely to have been shipped there first and then sold to the FRF." Regardless of the reasons why, the CAR found that the flow of Iranian munitions was able to trickle over 1,300 miles south of Khartoum. The CAR found Iranian ammunition at 14 sites in nine countries. Perhaps more than anything else, the weaponry's presence in the DRC indicates that the problem goes even deeper than that.

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Armin Rosen is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Global channel.

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