Why would Israel bomb Sudan? Theories cite Iran, Hamas, even the U.S.

An Israeli F-15 fighter takes off during an air show near Beersheva. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)

A military factory in Sudan was destroyed in a mysterious explosion last week, killing two, which the Sudanese government quickly blamed on an Israeli airstrike. It would not have been the first such strike, although Israeli officials did not comment on the explosion. Sudan is thought to provide a conduit for Iranian arms shipments through Egypt to Gaza, where Hamas and other anti-Israeli groups operate.

Tellingly, the next day, Israeli officials accused Sudan of aiding Iran-backed militant groups in the region. Also tellingly, the response from Arab states — which, though not exactly enamored of unilateral Israeli strikes, also tend to be wary of Iran — has been "muted."

On Sunday, the Times of London published what it's portraying as the definitive, detailed, inside story: Eight Israeli F-15 jets flew along the Red Sea and then east into Sudan, where four bombed a munitions facility, according to the paper's anonymous sources. The newspaper also reported that the Sudanese facility constructed missiles and was run by members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. 

But is there something deeper and more significant behind the attack than just destroying a weapons depot? It can be difficult to separate reporting from informed analysis, and analysis from speculation, with this sort of story.

Here are a few theories, but to be clear, these are not mutually exclusive and it's possible that none, one, or a combination of them, has some truth. It's also possible that some of them merely provided added incentive to the attack, the primary motive of which may have simply been to destroy the munitions:

1) "Rehearsal" for "forthcoming" Israeli strike on Iran. The Times of London deploys some passive voice in its report, saying the strike "was seen as a dry run for a forthcoming attack on Iran's nuclear facilities [and] has destroyed an Iranian-run plant making rockets and ballistic missiles in Sudan." The Sudanese site was further from Israel than are Iran's suspected nuclear sites, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy pointed out to TheAtlantic.com's Armin Rosen.

2) A warning to Iran. The same Times of London story, further down, portrays the strike as a show of force meant to intimidate Iran into cooperating on nuclear negotiations, rather than as a "dry run" for a pre-determined attack on the country. It quotes an unnamed "defense official," presumably Israeli, as saying, "This was a show of force but it was only a fraction of our capability — and of what the Iranians can expect in the countdown to the spring."

3) Preparing for conflict with Iran and Hamas. Analysts have long predicted that Iran would respond to an Israeli strike on its soil by encouraging anti-Israeli groups such as Hamas, which it supports, to launch counter-attacks on Israel. Was this strike, then, meant to weaken Iran's ability to do this? "Israel may have taken pre-emptive action to sever a key logistics line for Hamas – this line was also used in the 2008-2009 Gaza war – or it could have been a reaction to an Iranian attempt to arm Hamas further," the American Enterprise Institute's Katherine Zimmerman suggests.

4) A message to America. The strike, Robert Fox argues at The Week, "was a message from Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu [to the next U.S. president] that time for a decision on physical confrontation with Iran is very short." Because an American strike might have a higher chance at success than a necessarily smaller Israeli strike would, Netanyahu would probably prefer that the U.S. conduct it. One way to compel the White House to order such a strike would be to convince the president that Israel is going to strike Iran with or without America's help, so the U.S. might as well get involved to make sure it succeeds. An Israeli strike on Sudan, then, might be as much about sending a message to the U.S. as to Iran.

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