The decision by Morocco, in May 2018, to severe its diplomatic relations with Iran owing to claims of Iranian intervention in the dispute in Western Sahara, have further exacerbated Iran's diplomatic circumstances. Iran has been facing a diplomatic and economic campaign against it, led by the USA and the moderate Sunni countries headed by Saudi Arabia.
The Moroccan Foreign Minister, Nasser Bourita, argued that he has documents attesting to Iranian support provided to the Polisario Front – a separatist Marxist organization demanding independence for the Western Sahara region. Morocco claims that Iran, through its embassy in Algeria, helped organize meetings between the Polisario Front and Hezbollah, with the latter organization acting as a proxy for Iran and its interests. Among other things, the Moroccans claim that Hezbollah smuggled arms, including an anti-aircraft missile system suitable for mounting on trucks and provided military training to members of the Polisario Front.
Morocco did not stop at the severance of its diplomatic relations with Iran. Bourita went on to warn banks and financial institutions in his country against engaging in commercial relations with Iran, including transfers and transactions with Tehran in the aviation and automotive fields, purchasing of raw materials and even carpets made in Iran. Officially, Morocco's decision stemmed from the economic sanctions the USA had imposed on Iran, but one must not ignore the broader context of that decision, in view of the bilateral relations between the two countries.
The confrontation over Western Sahara – a strip of desert along the shore of the Atlantic Ocean – has been going on for the past 43 years. Since the second half of 1970, Morocco has dominated most of the disputed areas of this region. Following the ceasefire agreement signed under the auspices of the UN in 1991, the Marxist terrorist organization withdrew, and its leadership currently operates out of Tindouf province, located in Algeria, close to the border with Morocco. The organization established a refugee camp in this area, where some 150,000 Saharawis have lived in the last few decades.
Last April, the UN Security Council passed a resolution extending the mandate of the UN peacekeeping mission (MINURSO = United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara) supervising the ceasefire agreement in the region. The resolution also called on the Polisario Front to vacate the buffer zone it had penetrated in the area of Guerguerat inside Moroccan territory, and avoid any actions that could destabilize the region.
The tensions between Iran and Morocco started not just because of the Iranian support for the Polisario Front. In 2009, Rabat severed its diplomatic relations with Iran, after blaming Tehran of promoting Shi'ite Islam in Morocco. In March 2017, the Moroccan authorities arrested a Hezbollah operative, Lebanese financier Kassim Tajideen, who arrived in Casablanca on his way from Guinea-Bissau to Beirut. According to the US Department of the Treasury, Tajideen had provided Hezbollah with about $1 million in cash. After his arrest, the Moroccans extradited Tajideen to the USA.
Morocco blamed Iran directly of undermining stability in the Western Sahara region, through operations directed from the Iranian embassy in Algeria. According to Rabat, the Iranian cultural attaché to Algeria, Amir al-Musawi – who served as Deputy Minister of Defense, headed a defense research institute and was close to the Iranian regime – assisted in the smuggling of arms from Hezbollah to the Polisario Front, through Algeria.
The Objective: Influence in Africa
Iran's objective for its operations in Western Sahara is to undermine Morocco, a moderate Sunni country, as part of the Iranian regime's global policy of promoting the Shi'ite revolution. The Iranian mode of operation in Western Sahara is similar to Tehran's modes of operation in other places where the Iranians are involved and attempting to gain influence. The Iranians employ Hezbollah as a proxy in Lebanon. They employ Shi'ite militia forces and Hezbollah in Syria, Shi'ite militia forces in Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen. Additionally, Iran employs Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip, and – to some extent – it employs Hamas as well.
Another Iranian objective, through its support for the Polisario Front, is to gain a strategic foothold on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean.
Morocco's claims against Hezbollah shed some light on the presence and activities of the Shi'ite terrorist organization in Africa, under the auspices of Iran. The US State Department estimates that Hezbollah has maintained a smuggling network in Western Africa since the early 2000s. A report by Belgian Intelligence in 2000 noted that Hezbollah operatives were involved in the trading and smuggling of diamonds, in money laundering and financing for the organization. In 2004, The Washington Post quoted an intelligence source stating that Hezbollah maintains a number of companies in African countries to the south of the Sahara. In 2013, the USA added four Lebanese nationals to its list of economic sanctions. US authorities accused the four individuals of raising funds for Hezbollah in Ivory Coast, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Gambia. In the same year, Nigerian authorities arrested an operative of the terrorist organization, whose arrest led to a Hezbollah arms cache in that country, intended for attacks against Israeli targets in Western Africa.
Iran itself has also operated in Africa in the past decade, especially around the Horn of Africa and in East African countries, while aspiring to implement its global policy of promoting the Shi'ite revolution and gaining military, economic and diplomatic influence.
Through its attempts to gain influence on the African continent, Iran hopes to establish an anti-western block of countries that would constitute a balancing element for US influence worldwide and in Africa in particular. Additionally, Iran is interested in bypassing the economic sanctions the USA imposed on it in recent years. Another Iranian objective is to establish a strategic naval presence in countries along the shores of the Red Sea (Eritrea, Djibouti, and Sudan), for the purpose of staging terrorist operations against Israel and deterring moderate Sunni countries.
At the same time, Iran assigns a great deal of importance to a land presence, mainly for smuggling weapon systems and terror operatives and engaging in illegal trading between the Middle East and Africa. The primary base for the Iranians' land activity is Sudan, out of which they carried out extensive smuggling operations in the last few decades, to the Gaza Strip through the Sinai.
The primary method Iran uses in order to accomplish its objectives is maintaining economic relations with African countries, especially through trading in oil. The Iranian tactical approach is to gain a foothold in their target countries by utilizing infrastructure projects Iran conducts in those countries.
Morocco's Interest in Severing its Relations with Iran
As far as Morocco is concerned, severing the diplomatic relations with Iran and the accusations directed at the regime in Tehran are consistent with the policy of the Trump administration against Iran's hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East and its nuclear program.
Morocco may be taking advantage of the latest events in order to secure the future support at the UN of the moderate Sunni countries, and the USA for the implementation of the autonomy plan Morocco intends to apply in Western Sahara. Additionally, Morocco's last diplomatic move enables it to associate the Polisario Front with Hezbollah, as two similar terrorist organizations that reject the resolution of conflicts through diplomatic means and aspire to destabilize Africa and the Middle East.
Morocco's policy also positions it nearer the Israeli position on the issue of Iran and is consistent with the warming relations between Jerusalem and the Gulf countries. In 1995, Jerusalem and Rabat established formal diplomatic relations, but Morocco severed those relations in 2000 after the Second Intifada. Since then, however, the two countries have maintained certain unofficial connections. For example, the number of Israeli tourists traveling to Morocco reaches about 13,000 per year. In 2015, Israeli exports to Morocco amounted to about $23 million. Morocco is respectful of the local Jewish heritage and maintains the last significant Jewish community in the Arab world. The Moroccan constitution of 2011 even lists the Jewish-Hebrew culture among the sources of Moroccan heritage. Additionally, both Morocco and Israel are members of the US-led alliance against ISIS and other radical Sunni terrorist organizations.
The crisis between Morocco and Iran and the overlapping interests of Jerusalem and Rabat could lead to the strengthening of the diplomatic and economic relations between the two countries.
Omer Dostri is a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies (JISS)