CAIRO -- A suspected Israeli airstrike against a weapons factory in Khartoum last week points to a possible escalation in a hidden front of the rivalry between Israel and Iran: The arms pipeline through Sudan to Islamists on Israel's borders.
Mystery still surrounds the blast, which killed four people. But analysts say the incident could indicate Iran is trying to send more advanced weapons via Sudan to Hamas in the Gaza Strip or Hezbollah in Lebanon -- and that Israel has become more determined to stop it at a time of increased tensions over Iran's nuclear program.
Consensus has built among Israeli and Arab military analysts that the explosion just after midnight last Wednesday at the Yarmouk factory was indeed an Israeli airstrike as Sudan has claimed.
Israel says it neither confirms nor denies being behind it.
Sudan, in turn, denied on Monday that Iran had any connection to the factory's production.
In a show of support for the two countries' alliance, two Iranian warships -- a helicopter carrier and destroyer that had been conducting anti-piracy patrols off East Africa's coast -- docked this week at Sudan's main Red Sea port. The Iranian commanders were holding talks with Sudanese officers as part of the countries' "exchange of amicable relations," Sudan's military spokesman said.
Sudan's Foreign Ministry dismissed allegations of an Iranian connection to the Yarmouk facility, saying "Iran does not need to manufacture
weapons in Sudan, be it for itself or for its allies."
Experts say that Sudan's value to Iran is not in its modest weapons production capabilities, but in its vast desert expanses that provide cover for weapons convoys bound for Gaza through Egypt's lawless Sinai Peninsula. Israel has long contended that Iran uses the route to supply Hamas. It appears to have struck the supply line at least once before, when a convoy in a remote part of Sudan was blasted by explosions in 2009 -- though Israel never admitted to the attack.
The question now is: What would prompt Israel to conduct a bolder strike hitting a Sudanese government facility in the heart of the capital Khartoum?
The target may have been 40 shipping containers that satellite images show were stacked in the factory compound days before the explosion. Post-explosion imagery released Saturday by the Satellite Sentinel Project, a U.S. monitoring group, show six 52-foot-wide craters all centered at the spot where the containers had been, the blast's epicenter.
The group said the craters were consistent with an airstrike and that whatever it hit was a "highly volatile cargo," causing a powerful explosion that destroyed at least two structures in the compound and sent ordnance flying into nearby neighborhoods.
What was in the containers remains unknown -- leaving observers to speculate.
Retired Israeli Brigadier General Shlomo Brom, a military expert, said there is a "strong possibility" that Israel had identified an "imminent threat" within the factory.
Brom, a research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, said the containers could have been part of Iran's efforts to smuggle "a new category of weapons" to Gaza. The weapons could be "something with air defense capability ... or could very well belong to the category of rockets and missiles, but just larger, stronger, and longer range," he said.
Gen. Sameh Seif Elyazal, a former Egyptian army general, said his understanding was that a strike was carried out against short-range missiles being assembled in the factory "under Iranian supervision," bound for the Hamas and Hezbollah militant groups. He said that his analysis was based on "private conversations with Israeli officials" that had been conveyed to him through others. He did not elaborate.
Elyazal said Iranian-made weapons smuggled through Sudan reach Hamas militants in Gaza and Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon.
"Iran wants to put Israel under pressure from the north, through Hezbollah and from the east through Gaza," he said.
Iran has long backed Hamas, which took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007.