The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

Iran’s goal in its activity in the Western Sahara is to subvert Morocco, a moderate Sunni state, as part of the Iranian regime’s policy of spreading the Shi’ite revolution.

The decision by Morocco to break off relations with Iran because of Iran’s alleged involvement in the conflict in Western Sahara makes Iran’s diplomatic situation even more difficult at a time when Tehran faces an organized diplomatic and economic campaign against it led by the United States and the moderate Sunni countries, with Saudi Arabia in the forefront.

Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita claimed that he had documents indicating that Iran was aiding the Polisario Front – the separatist organization demanding independence in the Western Sahara. Morocco is asserting that Iran, through its embassy in Algeria, helped organize meetings between the Polisario Front and Hezbollah, which served as a proxy for Iran’s goals. Among other things, it is alleged that Hezbollah smuggled arms, including an anti-aircraft missile system that can be assembled on trucks, and provided military training to members of the Polisario Front.

The conflict in the Western Sahara – the desert strip stretching along the coast of the Atlantic Ocean – has continued for 43 years. Since the second half of 1970, Morocco has controlled most of the disputed territory in the region. Following a UN-sponsored ceasefire signed in 1991, the Marxist terrorist organization was driven back, and its leadership now operates from the Tindouf area in Algeria near the border with Morocco. The organization has established a refugee camp in this area in which 150,000 Saharans have been residing in recent decades.

Last April, the UN Security Council passed a resolution extending the mandate of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), which supervises the ceasefire in the area. The resolution also called on the Polisario Front to leave the buffer zone it had penetrated in the Guerguerat area in Morocco and refrain from taking actions liable to destabilize the area.

The tension between Iran and Morocco did not begin only because of Iranian support for the Polisario Front. In 2009, Rabat severed its diplomatic relations with Iran after having accused Tehran of disseminating Shi’a in the country. In March 2017, Morocco arrested a Hezbollah agent – a Lebanese financier named Kassim Tajideen, who stopped in Casablanca on his way from Guinea-Bissau to Beirut. According to the US Department of the Treasury, Tajideen gave Hezbollah $1 million in cash. Following his arrest, he was extradited to the United States.

Morocco’s allegations against Hezbollah shed light on the presence and activity of the Shi’ite terrorist organization in Africa under Iranian auspices. The American Department of State believes that Hezbollah has been maintaining a smuggling network in West Africa since the turn of the century. A report by the Belgian intelligence dated 2000 stated that Hezbollah operatives were involved in diamond trading and smuggling, money laundering, and financing for the organization. In 2004, intelligence source was quoted in The Washington Post as saying that Hezbollah had a number of companies in sub-Saharan Africa. In 2013, the United States added four Lebanese citizens accused of raising money for Hezbollah in Ivory Coast, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Gambia to its economic sanctions list. The same year, an agent of the terrorist organization was arrested in Nigeria, leading to the discover of a cache of Hezbollah’s weapons in that country designated for attacking Israeli targets in West Africa.

Morocco directly accused Iran of undermining stability in the Western Sahara under the guidance of the Iranian embassy in Algeria. According to Rabat, the Iranian cultural attache in Algeria, Amir al-Mousavi, who previously served as Deputy Minister of Defense and headed a defense research institute with ties to the Iranian regime, helped smuggle weapons from Hezbollah to the Polisario Front via Algeria.

Iran’s goal in its activity in the Sahara is to subvert Morocco, a moderate Sunni state, as part of the Iranian regime’s policy of disseminating the Shi’ite revolution. The pattern of Iranian actions in the Western Sahara is similar to the pattern of Tehran’s actions in other places where it is involved and trying to acquire influence. Iran uses Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shi’ite militias and Hezbollah in Syria, Shi’ite militias in Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen. Iran also puts Palestinian Islamic Jihad into action in the Gaza Strip, as well as Hamas to a certain extent. Another of Iran’s goals in support the Polisario Front is getting a strategic grip on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean.

For Morocco, breaking off ties with Iran and its accusations against the regime in Tehran dovetail with the Trump administration’s policy against Iran’s striving for hegemony in the Middle East and its nuclear program. It is possible that Morocco is exploiting recent events to obtain the future support in the UN of the moderate Sunni countries and the United States for realizing the autonomy plan that it seeks to implement in the Western Sahara. In addition, Morocco’s recent diplomatic maneuver is enabling it to tie the Polisario Front to Hezbollah as two similar terrorist organizations that are not interested in solving conflicts through diplomacy and are striving to destabilize Africa and the Middle East.

Morocco’s policy is also bringing it close to the Israeli position on Iran and the warming of relations between Israel and the Gulf states. Jerusalem and Rabat instituted official diplomatic relations in 1995, but these were severed in 2000 following the second intifada. Since then, however, there have been some unofficial ties between the countries. The number of Israeli tourists flying to Morocco has reached 13,000 annually, and Israeli exports to Morocco in 2015 amounted to $23 million. Morocco behaves with great respect for Jewish heritage and has a substantial Jewish community – the last one left in the Arab world. The 2011 Moroccan constitute also includes Jewish-Hebrew culture on the list of Moroccan heritage sources. In addition, Israel and Morocco are partners in the coalition led by the United States against the Islamic State and other extremist Sunni terrorist organizations.

The crisis between Morocco and Iran and the overlapping interests of Jerusalem and Rabat are likely to reinforce their diplomatic and economic ties.

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photo: By Med Rizki ZNIBER [CC BY-SA 4.0 ], from Wikimedia Commons