Obama’s Iran playbook gives hope to Darfur

Although Darfur’s atrocities are widely perceived to be a thing of the past, the UN announced in the last week that 138,000 Darfuris have been displaced by conflict since the beginning of the year, joining over four million Sudanese already displaced by ongoing wars in Darfur, Blue Nile, and South Kordofan states.  Sudan’s conflicts have produced the third highest prevalence of malnutrition globally, and European governments are so concerned about the influx of Sudanese refugees into Europe that the European Union last week donated $100 million to projects aimed at staunching the flow of those refugees.

Aid projects weren’t the answer to Darfur’s genocide a decade ago, and they certainly aren’t today.  The drivers of displacement aren’t a lack of development.  They are multiple concurrent internal armed conflicts, use of starvation as a weapon, the consolidation of a violent kleptocracy, aerial bombing of civilians, and the brutal repression of political opposition and civil society.  The deadly status quo has held for years, defying resolution.

{mosads}Scratch beneath the surface, and what is revealed is new leverage that presents the Obama administration with the opportunity to alter that status quo. Part of the problem is simply recognizing the opportunity.  The other much more challenging part is acting upon it in the last year of an administration facing a dizzying array of global and domestic challenges.

The regime in Khartoum has undermined every peace process aimed at addressing Sudan’s internal conflicts in Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan, as well as negotiations with unarmed opposition groups.  It uses these peace talks as a means to divide opposition and undermine progress towards an end to conflict, because leading regime figures have benefited financially from the state of insecurity and absence of rule of law which the Bashir regime has cultivated in its more than 25 years of violent, authoritarian rule.

Efforts to secure peace in Sudan have failed in the past in large part because of insufficient international leverage over the Sudanese government. New influence has emerged, however, as a result of new types of sanctions measures and tightened enforcement that were principally focused on Iran but had a spillover effect on Sudan. Sudan has been impacted because foreign banks moved to reduce their exposure to risky accounts and institutions in the wake of large fines paid for sanctions violations involving Iran and Sudan. The chilling effect on the commercial activities, investments, and finances of leading regime military, security, and civilian officials has caused sanctions relief to replace debt relief as the Sudan regime’s primary preoccupation.

Iran, like Sudan, had been the target of comprehensive U.S. sanctions for more than two decades, but it took a series of innovative, intensified, and targeted measures, principally from 2010 to 2013, to finally cut off Tehran’s economic lifelines and push the Iranians to engage in serious negotiations. At the same time, Washington used a range of approaches to ease the burden of some of these pressures on the Iranian people. Today,Sudan more closely resembles the belligerent and uncooperative Iran of 2007 to 2010: deserving of and susceptible to modernized sanctions that can finally support an end to the regime’s violent kleptocratic behavior.

U.S. leaders should adopt elements of the playbook used with Iran that are applicable to the Sudanese political and economic context and begin by immediately ratcheting up financial pressure and tightening sanctions enforcement on Sudan, deploying modernized sanctions that more sharply target the military and financial assets of those most responsible for continuing conflict, atrocities, and mass corruption in Sudan. At the same time, the Obama administration should quickly address the existing sanctions measures that have harmed the medical, humanitarian, people-to-people, and academic sectors in Sudan.

The United States should deploy this combination of tightened and eased sanctions measures to bring the Sudanese regime to a singular peace process that leads to a truly inclusive peace deal in Sudan, the verified implementation of which would trigger the eventual removal of sanctions, debt relief, and normalized U.S. relations.

In their previous roles, President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, and UN Ambassador Samantha Power helped focus attention on and advocated forceful responses to the genocide that was unfolding in the mid-2000s in Darfur. This violence has not ended, nor have the brutal attacks in South Kordofan and Blue Nile.

Suddenly, there is an opening that might allow space for a solution. Sudan is a place where this administration could make a real difference in the next nine months with a creative new policy gambit. The people of Sudan may not have a better chance for peace for a long time to come.

Prendergast is Founding Director and Brooks-Rubin is Director of Policy at the Enough Project. They are co-authors of the new report “Modernized Sanctions for Sudan: Unfinished Business for the Obama Administration.”


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