Iran’s North African Proxy War?

Morocco announced on May 1 its intention to sever diplomatic relations with Iran over that country’s aid to the Polisario Movement via Hezbollah, Iran’s Shiite ally in Lebanon.

Iran’s North African Proxy War?
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif

Morocco announced on May 1 its intention to sever diplomatic relations with Iran over that country’s aid to the Polisario Movement via Hezbollah, Iran’s Shiite ally in Lebanon.

Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita reported that Morocco had obtained proof that an agent at the Iranian embassy in Algiers had assisted Hezbollah in sending missiles to the secessionist Polisario Front last month. Bourita also claimed that Morocco has evidence of the Hezbollah leadership’s repeated meetings, mediated by an Iranian diplomat, with Polisario elements in Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria. Iran, Hezbollah and the Polisario refuted any involvement in such an alliance and accused Morocco of fabricating the allegations to justify cutting off ties with Iran while garnering support for its claim to the Sahara. The incident does not represent a significant departure from the habitual stances of the region’s key players. However, if Morocco’s accusations are accurate, it suggests that Iran is trying to extend its grasp throughout the MENA region in more ways than one.

Regional actors have taken predictable positions in reaction to the conflict. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain have condemned Iran and backed Morocco, while Algeria has sided with Iran. Both camps have accused each other of attempting to spark a proxy war to foment instability. Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir blamed Tehran, in a tweet, of trying to destabilize the region by “igniting sectarianism” and “supporting terrorism.” He added in another tweet, “[W]hat Iran has done to the Kingdom of Morocco through its proxies (Hezbollah terrorist organization) training the so-called Polisario Front, is a solid proof of Iran’s interference.” Meanwhile, Sahrawi Minister of Interior Bashir al-Bashir alleged, in an interview with Sputnik, that “the decision to sever Morocco’s relations with Iran is linked to the Moroccan foreign minister’s visit to Israel and Saudi pressure on Rabat.” Likewise, Hezbollah called the allegation baseless and merely evidence that Morocco has submitted to American, Israeli and Saudi pressure.

Morocco and Iran have a history of not getting along. Tensions flared decades ago when Morocco briefly provided refuge for Iran’s ousted Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi following the 1979 revolution. Morocco later cut diplomatic ties with Iran in 2009, accusing Tehran of supporting a Shiite rebellion in Sunni-majority Bahrain. Five years later, Morocco reopened diplomatic channels, but the two countries remained at odds over Morocco’s support of Saudi Arabia, Iran’s archrival.

Former Pentagon official Michael Rubin argued in a recent op-ed that Iran’s latest actions constitute a continued effort to destabilize Morocco. He surmises that Iran’s interference in Moroccan affairs is Tehran’s attempt to export Shiism and assert itself as leader of the Islamic world. “Iran has no interest in Sahrawi independence or the Polisario’s supposed cause,” he argued, adding that Iran has been seeking to “kneecap perhaps the most successful model of regional tolerance and peacemaking the Arab world and Africa have.”

In recent years, Algeria and Iran have developed an unlikely alliance since restoring diplomatic relations in 2000. In 2016, Algiers and Tehran signed a series of agreements related to petrochemicals, agriculture, construction and energy, granting Iran a strategic presence in North Africa. Furthermore, last November, Algeria refused to join the Saudi-led military alliance to fight the Islamic State, claiming that joining the coalition would represent a conflict of interest. Earlier the same year, Algeria retained a neutral position when Saudi Arabia cut ties with Iran. It stated in an official press statement, “Algeria urges the political leadership of both countries to show some restraint in order to avoid an increased deterioration of the current situation….”

Morocco’s rupture of diplomatic ties with Iran occurs amidst already-heightened tensions between Morocco and Algeria over the Polisario’s recent encroachments into Moroccan territory. In April, Rabat warned Algiers that it was prepared to intervene militarily if Saharawi forces did not withdraw from the buffer zone.

Morocco regained control of the Sahara, which constitutes its southernmost province, in 1975 after the withdrawal of the Spanish. Morocco and Polisario fighters continued to clash over the territory’s status until the U.N. brokered a ceasefire in 1991. Last month, the U.N. Security Council extended the mandate of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) through October 2018 and called for “a realistic, practicable and enduring political solution to end the decades‑old conflict.” However, MINURSO has struggled to enforce its mission in the region. In fact, in March 2016, Morocco temporarily expelled MINURSO peacekeepers from its territory in response to former U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s reference to the “occupation” of the Sahara during a visit to the region. MINURSO’s lack of enforcement capacity has left the Sahara vulnerable to bouts of conflict among the parties with interests there.