Iran ‘‘has sought alternate routes’’ for its arms shipments to Hamas after Israel cracked down on maritime lanes direct to Gaza that Tehran previously used, said Michael Eisenstadt, Director of the Military and Security Studies Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The Sudan route ‘‘complicates matters for Israel,’’ he said.
Hezbollah is another possible destination. But despite the civil war, Syria is believed to remain the primary route for Tehran to supply its powerful Shiite guerrilla ally in Lebanon.
Iranian arms shipments gain added significance amid the dispute of Iran’s nuclear program, which Israel and the U.S. contend is aimed at producing a bomb. Israel has held out the possibility of attacking Iranian nuclear facilities. Iran denies any intention to build a bomb and has warned it will retaliate for any Israeli attack — raising fears Hezbollah, Hamas or other Iranian-backed militant groups would carry out strikes on Israel.
Speaking to Israel Radio after the Wednesday explosion in Khartoum, Israeli Vice Premier Moshe Yaalon said ‘‘there’s no doubt that there is an axis of weapons from Iran via Sudan that reaches us, and not just us.’’
The contentions surrounding last week’s explosion also point to the close ties between Iran and Sudan, dating back to the 1989 coup that brought President Omar al-Bashir to power, when Iran’s Revolutionary Guard helped supply him weapons.
Though wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged atrocities in the western Sudanese region of Darfur, al-Bashir visited Tehran most recently in August for a Nonaligned Movement summit. Iran has made significant investments in water and engineering projects in Sudan.
China is the main arms source for Sudan’s government. But Iran, which signed a military relations deal with Khartoum in 2008, is also a supplier.
Notably, Khartoum appears to receive Iranian drones to use in its multiple domestic wars against rebel groups, said Jonah Leff, who monitors Sudan for the Small Arms Survey. Rebels shot down two such drones, in 2008 and in March this year.
An Iranian role at the Yarmouk facility remains uncertain. The facility, which opened in 1996, was touted by Sudan as a source of pride, showing its weapons manufacturing capabilities. Still, the factory only produces ammunition. Leff said there is no evidence Iranian weapons are being assembled there, suggesting it was beyond the facility’s capabilities.
But, he said, workers from Yarmouk have traveled to Iran for training.
There have also been reports of Iranian experts residing at Yarmouk, said Hani Raslan, an expert on Sudan at the Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. Raslan also said he suspects the strike was aimed at weakening the Iranian arms smuggling network.
Fawaz A. Gerges, who heads the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics, says the strike has its symbolic aspect as well, allowing Israel to ‘‘flex its muscle and capacity and will to strike.’’
‘‘Regardless of what particular weapons were destroyed, Israel sent a message to Sudan and to Iran,’’ Gerges said.
Associated Press writers Sarah El Deeb in Cairo, Lauren E. Bohn and Josef Federman in Jerusalem, and Brian Murphy in Dubai contributed to this report.