The United States will ease some financial sanctions against Sudan in recognition of what the Obama administration says are small areas of improvement in fighting terrorism and other U.S. goals, the White House announced Friday.
The move, which lifts elements of a U.S. trade embargo in place since the Clinton administration, is a show of goodwill toward the government of longtime Sudanese leader Omar Hassan al-Bashir.
But the changes would not fully take effect for six months, allowing the incoming Trump administration to assess whether that progress continues or to reverse then policy. U.S. officials said Trump transition officials have been briefed on the shift but would not provide details of those discussions or predict what the Republican president-elect will do.
In a letter to Congress announcing the executive action, President Obama credited “Sudan’s positive actions over the past 6 months” in changing U.S. policy in place for nearly 25 years.
“These actions include a marked reduction in offensive military activity, culminating in a pledge to maintain a cessation of hostilities in conflict areas in Sudan, and steps toward the improvement of humanitarian access throughout Sudan, as well as cooperation with the United States on addressing regional conflicts and the threat of terrorism,” Obama wrote.
President-elect Donald Trump has not outlined any detailed views on Sudan, which was first labeled a state sponsor of terrorism in 1993.
The unusual designation — Sudan, Iran and Syria are the only three countries so labeled — restricts U.S. foreign aid, bans defense exports and sales, and imposes various financial and other restrictions.
In 1998, the United States launched airstrikes on Sudan, a North African nation with a majority Arab population, over the harboring of al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.
The United States has extremely limited diplomatic contact with Sudan, although in 2005, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited and met with Bashir in the capital Khartoum. She also visited a refugee camp in Darfur.
Senior Obama administration officials said they expect trade in agricultural equipment and products, transportation equipment and other areas.
The action would leave in place the U.S. branding of Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism as well as a raft of economic and political sanctions, some of which were applied in protest of the killing and displacement of ethnic minorities in the Darfur region. It also does not affect U.S. claims that Bashir has committed war crimes.
The Obama administration based the decision on findings that Sudan has ended military aerial bombardment in the Darfur region and other conflict areas and has helped counter the Islamic State group, including limiting movements by fighters. It is also based on the U.S. assertion that Sudan is allowing greater access to humanitarian relief in conflict areas including Darfur, denying haven to rebel fighters from South Sudan and stemming the flow of weapons as ethnic conflict rages there.
The shift, taken with just a week left in the Obama administration, partly reflects a view that ostracizing Bashir had not helped U.S. policy aims, people familiar with the decision said.
It is the culmination of a diplomatic initiative that began nearly two years ago, combining pressure and regular meetings between U.S. and Sudanese officials, said Zach Vertin, a former Obama administration official who worked on the issue and is now a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
“For more than two decades there has been a policy dominated by pressure and sanctions, and for two decades that policy has largely failed,” Vertin said.
“It’s a cautious opening. It’s about demonstrating that Sudan can come in from the cold.”