Morocco has announced that it would be cutting diplomatic ties with Iran over Tehran's support for the Polisario Front, a Western Saharan independence movement.
Morocco will close its embassy in Tehran and expel the Iranian ambassador in Rabat.
The Kingdom of Morocco is the most westerly of the North African countries. It is a sovereign country located in the Maghreb region of North Africa. Geographically, Morocco is characterized by a rugged mountainous interior, large tracts of desert, and a lengthy coastline along the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. Its culture is a blend of Arab, Berber, European, and African influences.
Morocco was a French protectorate from 1912 to 1956, when Sultan Mohammed became king. He was succeeded in 1961 by his son, Hassan II, who ruled for 38 years and played a prominent role in the search for peace in the Middle East.
Morocco is considered a relatively liberal economy governed by the law of supply and demand. Morocco has followed a policy of privatization of certain economic sectors from 1993. Morocco has become a major player in African economic affairs and is the 5th African economy by GDP (PPP).
Modern day Iran is considered one of the most oppressive regimes in the world. The government of Iran has been criticized both for restrictions and punishments that follow the Islamic Republic's constitution and law. In 2016, the United Nations General Assembly approved a resolution expressing “serious concern” about Iran’s high rate of executions without legal safeguards, ongoing use of torture, widespread arbitrary detentions, sharp limits on freedom of assembly, expression, and religious belief, and continuing discrimination against women and ethnic/religious minorities, including Baha’is.
Iran has played an active role in multiple conflicts taking place in the Middle East including Syria and Lebanon. It has also been accused of harbouring and sponsoring terror outfits. In addition, the status of the nuclear deal is also at stake after US President Donald Trump refused to ratify it. It is currently locked in a proxy war with Israel.
The Polisario Front
The Polisario Front has a long history of opposition and insurgency in the Western Saharan region. Spanish colonial forces ruled the area from the late 1800s, and the Polisario Front was formed initially as an anti-Spanish movement led by the Sahrawi population in the early 1970s. Following Spain’s withdrawal in 1975, the Western Sahara region was claimed by Mauritania, Morocco, and the Polisario Front. Backed by Algeria, the Front waged a 16-year-long war of independence against Morocco and Mauritania, before the latter eventually withdrew its claims to the territory. In 1991, a ceasefire was reached between the two remaining parties, but to date no agreement on borders near the Algerian border has been formed.
The Moroccan government has accused Tehran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah of funding, training, and arming fighters from the Polisario movement. Hezbollah has denied the allegations and criticized Morocco for teaming with the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia in cutting ties with the Iranian government.
Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita said that Morocco has already taken measures to end ties between the two countries. The Moroccan Ambassador has left Tehran and the Iranian embassy in Rabat will be shut down.
Bourita stated that Rabat has evidence incriminating the Iranian government, which has assisted Hezbollah’s support for the Polisario Front through its embassy in Algiers. This evidence includes documentation of arms deliveries made to the Front, including surface-to-air SAM9, SAM11 and Strela missiles. It is believed that financial and logistical support to the movement has been ongoing since 2016, but the first delivery of weapons was only sent by Hezbollah last month, prompting Morocco to sever diplomatic relations.
The involvement of the Iranian Embassy in Algiers to channel such support has raised questions. Bourita explained that Hezbollah military experts have visited a Polisario base within Algeria, an action that could only be undertaken with the Algerian government’s approval. Rabat sees this as evidence of Algerian hostility towards Morocco’s territorial integrity.
This is not the first time that Iranian involvement has been reported in proxy conflicts in the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region. Iran’s support for the Houthi rebels in Yemen has been vital to the ongoing civil war that has afflicted the country since 2011. In 2012, reports had surfaced of arms smuggling by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and IRGC and Hezbollah operatives were believed to be engaged in boosting Houthi control over the Yemeni capital Sanaa.
Iran’s involvement in the ongoing Syrian conflict has caused tension with Israel and Saudi Arabia. Last week, 11 Iranians were killed during an Israeli air strike on a weapons base inside Syria. The air strike was the second against a Syrian military base that resulted in the deaths of Iranians.
Our assessment is that ties between Morocco and Iran will likely continue to worsen. The relationship between the two countries has deteriorated substantially since 2009, where Rabat broke diplomatic links with Tehran after an adviser to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Iran had sovereign rights over Bahrain. Iran’s ties to other Middle East countries like Saudi Arabia have also worsened. If diplomacy is not urgently deployed, it is likely that Middle East would become a theatre for larger conflicts.