Morocco Flexes Its Muscles Over Western Sahara: An Analysis of Rabat’s Standoff With Tehran

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 15

Polisario fighters (Source:

On May 1, the Kingdom of Morocco made the dramatic step of severing all political ties with the Islamic Republic of Iran and withdrawing its ambassador from Tehran. The Moroccan government claimed to have evidence of Iranian support for the Polisario Front, the separatist group that has been seeking independence for Western Sahara since 1975 (al-Arabiya, May 1). The decision was, according to Morocco’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Nasser Bourita, the result of Iran providing military training and supplying weapons to Polisario fighters through its proxy, Hezbollah. “Hezbollah’s actions seek to undermine Moroccan interests and constitute an attack on the country’s territorial integrity,” Bourita said (Morocco World News, May 1). The identification of Iran and Hezbollah also implicated Algeria. The Polisario is based in Tindouf, in Algeria’s southwest, and the coordination of these contacts was said to have been done through the Iranian embassy in Algiers. [1] Moreover, Morocco had made explicit accusations the previous month alleging similar types of activity by Algeria (Hespress, March 30).

This is not the first time Rabat has broken ties with Tehran. There have been long-standing tensions between the two states dating back to when Morocco hosted the exiled Shah of Iran after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, and its support for Iraq in its war with Iran. More recently, Morocco cut diplomatic relations in 2009 because of claims the Iranian embassy in Rabat was spreading Shiism in the country. Relations only resumed in 2014 at the request of Iran (al-Arabiya, May 1). According to Moroccan officials, this most recent decision was taken in the interests of the country’s national security: Iran and Hezbollah were attempting to use the Polisario as a proxy force to attack Morocco via southwest Algeria and across the UN buffer zones.

Who is the Polisario Front?

The Sahrawi Liberation Army, known more commonly as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Río de Oro—and particularly as the Polisario Front—was formed in 1973 by a group of Saharans who were living in exile in Zuerat, Mauritania. [2] At this time, the areas of Saguia el-Hamra and Río de Oro were under Spanish rule but were also claimed by Morocco as part of “Greater Morocco” (descended from the Sherfian Empire) and by Mauritania, as part of “Ensemble Mauritanien.” By contrast, the aim of the Polisario Front was to create the independent state of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) on the territory of the Western Sahara for the Sahrawi people. The signing of the “Madrid Accords” by Spain and Morocco in 1975 legalized the withdrawal of the colonial power and permitted the territory’s annexation by Morocco. This development marked the beginning of a violent conflict between Morocco and the Polisario that remains unresolved to this day. [3] A ceasefire in 1991, overseen by MINURSO (the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara), has brought about a significant reduction in hostilities and largely resulted in a stalemate that sees Morocco control the western part (up to the Sand Wall defense it built from 1986-1990) and the Polisario control the eastern section (see map).

However, today the political question appears no closer to a resolution. At issue is the referendum to determine the fate of the territory, with the particular points of contention being who is eligible to vote in the referendum—Sahrawis from the territory prior to Morocco’s annexation and their descendants, or all those living there now—and what options should be available to those voting—independence, as favored by the Polisario, or autonomy, as preferred by Morocco.

Despite SADR being recognized by 32 states, Morocco has used its greater political clout at the UN to push for an autonomy plan since 2007, a move that has received the support and endorsement of major powers, the United States chief among them. This autonomy plan is appealing because the viability of an independent Sahrawi state is uncertain, given that it is surrounded by much larger neighboring countries and largely reliant on two resources (fish and phosphates). Indeed, the concern is that SADR, if formed, would likely become either a vassal state under the control of Algeria or Iran, or a failed state that could become a haven for terrorist groups. [4]

Indeed, the terrorist threat has increased markedly in recent years, with first the appearance of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) spreading out from Algeria, and then the emergence of Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) in nearby Mali (Morocco On The Move, June, 2014). Links between these groups and the Polisario have been recorded. In 2011, Polisario members were implicated in the kidnapping of three Western aid workers from one of its camp in Tindouf on behalf of AQIM. The three were held for nine months.

In 2012, the Polisario was accused of participating in drug and aid trafficking between Mauritania, Mali and Algeria. In the same year, new recruits from Tindouf were also reported to be involved with AQIM and the MUJAO in northern Mali. [5] Then again in 2012 Mauritania reported a series of security threats from terrorist groups linked to AQIM, the Polisario Front and Boko Haram. Meanwhile, a number of reports have suggested that the Tindouf refugee camps have become a recruiting ground for these larger terrorist organizations, as well as a hub for trafficking arms across the Sahel, and drugs into Europe. Most recently, the U.S. State Department moved to designate Islamic State in the Greater Sahara as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) and its leader, Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT). Al-Sahrawi is a former Polisario leader. This development suggests that the terrorist threat is unlikely to diminish in this region in the near future and the fate of the Western Sahara will likely play a pivotal role.

The Credibility of the Moroccan Accusations

For their part, both Hezbollah and the Iranian embassy in Algeria have denied all Moroccan accusations regarding support for the Polisario, and insisted they have no connection with the group (al-Jazeera, May 2). Bahram Ghasemi, the Iranian foreign ministry spokesperson, told local media that the allegations were completely baseless and that there was no evidence: “In their meeting with the foreign minister of our country [and] in their interviews with different media outlets, the authorities of this country [Morocco] did not present any conclusive evidence to prove their claims” (Morocco World News, May 16).

For its part, Polisario also denied receiving any assistance from Iran, with its spokesperson Muhammed Hadded requesting that the Moroccan government produce evidence showing the links between Iran and the Western Sahara movement (Mehr, May 2). Algeria has also publicly rebutted the accusations, releasing a statement on May 13 stating that “[i]nstead of submitting the ‘irrefutable’ evidence that he claims he holds, which really does not exist … the Moroccan minister chose to opt for mystification and fabrication” (Arabi 21, May 13).

So what proof does the Moroccan government actually have?

Despite not making its evidence public, Foreign Minister Bourita has nevertheless claimed that “Morocco has strong proof, including names and specific incidents that indicate Hezbollah is logistically and strategically supporting the Polisario Front” (Morocco World News, May 2). In multiple interviews Bourita has mentioned a file that includes “proven and precise facts: dates of visits by senior officers of Hezbollah in Algeria, dates and venues of meetings with Polisario officials [specifically in the Tindouf camps] and a list of names of agents involved in these contacts” (Morocco World News, May 16). [6] Bourita claims that this file was carefully prepared for weeks on the basis of information collected and cross-checked over several months, and that ties between Iran and Hezbollah to the Polisario can be traced back to 2016 when Hezbollah set up a committee to support the organization’s activities. [7]

Moreover, the claims made by Morocco’s foreign minister have been corroborated by other sources. On April 24, The Algerian Times wrote that the Polisario Front was participating in “continuous military training from Hezbollah in tunnels, dug under the Moroccan defense wall” (Algeria Times, April, 24). Other Algerian media outlets have published photographs of military individuals training in the Polisario camps and quoted them saying that they had benefited from training supervised by Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas (al-Arabiya, May 3).

Photographs of a meeting between Hezbollah and Polisario members in Beirut have also surfaced in which the well-known Polisario activist, Nana Labbat al-Rasheed, can be seen with Ali Fayyad, a member of the Lebanese parliament and leader of Hezbollah, along with five other members from each side (Al3omk May 5). Sources claim the photograph was posted on the Facebook page of a Polisario representative who attended the meeting (Chouftv , May 29).

In terms of matériel, there are specific accusations that Hezbollah sent (surface-to-air) SAM9, SAM11 and Strela missiles to the Polisario through Iran’s embassy in Algeria (al-Jazeera, May 1). Meanwhile, local Moroccan news sources have highlighted the continued presence of Polisario fighters and military equipment in the UN buffer zone (Hespress, March 30). Indeed, UN Security Council Resolution 2414, which was adopted on April 27 of this year and extended MINURSO for an additional six months, took the unusual step of explicitly calling on the Polisario Front to withdraw from the area.

An interesting development in the story occurred with the publication of an almost identical article on the websites of two British newspapers toward the end of May alleging that the operations were not simply being run through the Iranian embassy in Algiers by Hezbollah, but were being directed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) (The Sun, May 27; The Express, May 28). On the one hand, this development makes sense, in that the IRGC is responsible for overseeing Iran’s operations in other countries. On the other, it suggests that the link with the Polisario is no mere one-off, but part of a concerted effort by the Iranian government to expand into Northern Africa. That puts the relationship on a par with Iran’s involvement in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. What makes this information unusual, however, is that it appeared only in these two publications, neither of which is noted for their coverage of foreign affairs. Moreover, the sole source for this information appears to have been Dore Gold, the former Israeli ambassador to the UN and a political advisor to Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister. Gold currently serves as president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

Explaining Morocco’s Accusations

Putting to one side the issue of their veracity, analysts see in Morocco’s accusations three possible motives. The first is the use of these accusations to disrupt UN-mandated negotiations that were due to take place between Morocco and the Polisario Front on the issue of the referendum. Moreover, these accusations, by implicating Iran, Hezbollah and Algeria, would rally further support behind Morocco’s autonomy plan while, at the same time, weakening Sahrawi claims for independence. While plausible, the negotiations between the two sides have been essentially deadlocked for 27 years—Morocco has had no need to resort to such accusations to stall negotiations in the past and it is unclear why it should need to now. Furthermore, as noted previously, UNSC Resolution 2414 was adopted just before the accusations were made public and explicitly identified Polisario activities that had violated the UN ceasefire.

The second possible motive is that the accusations are part of a broader campaign to prepare the Moroccan public for their country’s backing of Saudi Arabia as it moves to counter Iran in the Syrian conflict. However, while there has been speculation over increased Saudi involvement in the conflict, it nevertheless seems highly unlikely that this explains the publicization of these accusations (TRT World, June 1). For one thing, Morocco is an authoritarian regime with little reason to court the explicit approval of its citizenry to participate in an external conflict. For another, and perhaps more pertinently, Morocco has recently withdrawn its air force from the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen (Middle East Monitor, April 16). A related motivation, it is claimed, is that this move by Morocco was to strengthen ties with Saudi Arabia in its regional contest with Iran. Again, this seems unlikely to be the explanation, particularly given that relations between the two countries are said to have been strained by Morocco’s decision to remain neutral in the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar. [8]

The third possible motive is that the announcement was intended to curry favor with the U.S. administration of Donald Trump and in so doing strengthen its relationship with America. Here, the timing for the release of this information is noteworthy, coming as it did the day after Netanyahu’s speech on Iran’s nuclear weapons program from 1999 to 2003, and a week ahead of the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Indeed, in making this decision, Trump cited as one of the principal reasons for the decision the fact that “[t]he Iranian regime is the leading state sponsor of terror. It exports dangerous missiles, fuels conflicts across the Middle East, and supports terrorist proxies and militias such as Hezbollah, Hamas, the Taliban and Al Qaeda.” [9] This explanation appears to be the most plausible based on the fact that Bourita gave an extensive interview about this to Fox News, the cable channel said to be frequently watched by President Trump and influential in affecting his policy preferences. Even then, this explanation is not wholly convincing, as it is unclear what tangible benefit Morocco could expect from such a move.

Iranian Involvement in the Western Sahara

As concerns what Iran hopes to gain in the Western Sahara, again three principal motives have been put forward. The most prominent (and obvious) of these is Iran’s desire for regional dominance and the leadership position of a Shia “crescent” of influence. As has been noted above and elsewhere, Iran has provided support and training for militias and proxies in Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Yemen. Moreover, as revealed by recently declassified CIA intelligence documents, Iran has even provided support to al-Qaeda in the past (al-Jazeera, November 3, 2017). As such, the Western Saharan issue offers the opportunity to extend its strategic influence into North Africa, while its location also offers access to the Atlantic Ocean. In addition, given Morocco’s proximity to Europe, any instability in the country may negatively impact Europe’s security and so offer Iran leverage in negotiations over the JCPOA. As to the credence of such accusations, given Iran’s past and ongoing behavior in the region, these would appear to be highly plausible and so, in effect, the question becomes one concerning the intent of Iran’s participation in this conflict: does the Western Sahara represent a new “front” in this regional battle, or is it merely a one-off?

An alternative explanation put forward centers on Hezbollah and its use of Africa for profiteering to fund its activities in the Middle East. Hezbollah is extensively involved in drugs and arms trafficking and West Africa and it seems plausible that the group’s involvement is related to profiteering, not least because of the Polisario’s own involvement in the illegal arms trade in the region. That said, accepting this explanation suggests Iran’s involvement in this conflict is primarily about profiteering rather than regional dominance, notwithstanding the possibility that these two explanations are not necessarily mutually exclusive. [10]

The third explanation focuses on Algeria and, in particular, its “rivalry” with Morocco. Clearly, Algeria has played a pivotal role, both in terms of permitting the Iranian embassy in Algiers to conduct operations and allowing Hezbollah officials to visit Tindouf. Allied to these is its long-lasting and continuous support of the Polisario Front. Moreover, there have been numerous reports of Algerian officials training Sahrawi youths to provoke Moroccan law enforcement agents and incite unrest in major cities in the Sahara (Sahara News, September 15, 2014). While there is no doubt that tensions exist between Algeria and Morocco as neighboring countries, it is also the case that the countries can cooperate, as recently evidenced by Algeria’s vote for Morocco’s 2026 World Cup bid and King Mohammed VI’s subsequent suggestion that Algeria and Morocco put forward a joint bid to host the 2030 tournament (Moroccan World News, June 21). Moreover, it remains unclear how any escalation in the conflict would be beneficial to Algeria, as it would very likely to spill into its territory.

On Balance

Based on the available evidence in the public domain, the accusations put forward by Morocco appear more credible than the denials offered by Iran, Hezbollah and Algeria. However, what cannot be ascertained from these accusations is the intent and extent of Iranian involvement in the Western Saharan conflict.

Certainly, Morocco’s public announcement of these charges and its suspension of diplomatic relations are not unprecedented, and at this stage it would appear the involvement of Iran is not sufficiently serious to warrant a military response. Instead, the actions of the Moroccan government may be intended to dissuade Iran from further engagement in the conflict over the Western Sahara. Whether Iran heeds this warning will be the deciding factor for where things go next.

 

NOTES

[1] In 1975, the Polisario withdrew from the Western Sahara and set up camps in and around Tindouf with the permission of the Algerian government. They remain in place to this day. The sites are commonly known as Laayoune, Smara, Aouserd, and Dakhla.

[2] The name is a translation from the Spanish name for the group Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y Río de Oro

[3] The UN lists this as the last remaining major territory on its list of Non-Self Governing Territories. See http://www.un.org/en/decolonization/nonselfgovterritories.shtml [accessed 06/21/18]

[4] An additional, albeit less urgent, concern is that the granting of independence to SADR may intensify separatist claims in other parts of the Maghreb, particularly the Berber movements in Algeria and Morocco as well as the Tuareg in Algeria and Libya.

[5] This accusation was supported by the foreign minister of Mali, Tieman Coulibaly, who in 2013 confirmed that Polisario militia members were recruited and paid monthly salaries to fight for MUJAO (Morocco On The Move, June 2014).

[6] The names include: Haidar Sobhi Habib, chief of Hezbollah’s external operations; Ali Moussa Dakdouk, military advisor to Hezbollah; and Haj Abou Wael Zalzali, head of military training and logistics.

[7] An interview with an expert in international law, immigration, and the Sahara conflict, Sabri al-Haw that appeared in the Moroccan news outlet Hespress claimed that said that Moroccan officials acquired this information through a report by the Flemish Institute of Peace entitled “Illicit Gun Markets and Firearms Acquisition of Terrorist Networks in Europe” that was issued in April (Gulf News, May 2).

[8] Indeed, this tension is said to explain why Saudi Arabia not only voted but also actively lobbied for the U.S. 2026 Soccer World Cup bid over that of Morocco’s (Moroccan World News, June 6).

[9] The text of this speech can be found at Whitehouse.gov (May 8). This point was expanded upon in Secretary of State Pompeo’s speech on Iran delivered some two weeks later, in which three of the twelve “basic requirements” for future US-Iran engagement were concerned with its activities overseas. Interestingly, though he name-checked Iranian involvement in Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, no direct mention of the Western Sahara was made (US State Department, May 21).

[10] For its part, Morocco’s foreign minister proposed that Hezbollah’s involvement was actually in retaliation for Morocco allowing Qassim Tajuddin, a Lebanese-Sierra Leonean businessman with ties to the Hezbollah leadership, to be extradited to the United States following his arrest at Casablanca airport in March of 2017.