By Track Persia

May 10, 2018

The resource-richness of Western Sahara seems to have tempted the Iranian regime and its Shiite Lebanese proxy Hezbollah which has promised to send a range of missiles to the desert’s Polisario Front, an Algeria-backed movement seeking independence and statehood, to escalate the crisis between Rabat and Polisario.

Rabat on May 1 said it had severed diplomatic ties with Iran over the support for the Polisario Front, a Western Sahara independence movement, extended via the Iranian embassy in Algiers of Tehran and its Lebanese Shi’ite Hezbollah.

The Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita says Algiers is involved in the weapons supply to the armed the Polisario Front. On its part, Algeria’s Foreign Ministry on May 2, summoned the Moroccan ambassador to Algiers to reject Rabat’s May 1 accusations that Algiers had played any role in alleged Iranian support for the Western Sahara Polisario independence movement.

The Foreign Minister Bourita says the Moroccan ban on Iran is comprehensive and describes the latter’s ideology as “just a new face for Persian imperialism which has been uprooted immediately”.

Bourita accused the Iranian Embassy in Algiers of having served as a “courier for the new “Safawi alliance” to be established in North Africa” through Western Sahara. He added that “all steps had been taken in order to strengthen Morocco’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as its security and stability”.

On May 1, Bourita said “the first shipment of weapons was recently” sent to the Polisario Front via the Iranian Embassy in Algiers. He added that Rabat had “irrefutable proof” of Hezbollah’s involvement and said ties were being cut in response to Iran “allying itself with” the Polisario.

A senior Polisario Front official condemned the allegations as “unfounded,” saying Morocco “has not provided any evidence.” “The Polisario has never had military relations with Hezbollah and Iran. It’s a grotesque lie to involve the Maghreb in the Middle East crisis,” Mohammed Khaddad told AFP in Algiers. He accused Rabat of wanting to “shirk the negotiating process just called for by the Security Council” on Western Sahara.

On May 3, the six-state Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) issued a statement to the public backing Morocco’s rupture with Iran, which leads the Iranian camp. Confirming the new development, the GCC’s Secretary-General Abdul-Latif bin Rashid al-Zayani on May 8 reiterated the Arab Gulf alliance’s “condemnation of Iran’s interference in Morocco’s internal and regional affairs”. He said the efforts of Iran and Hezbollah to penetrate the North African territory were “futile and a waste of resources at a time when the people of Iran and Lebanon were suffering from their trouble-making”. Zayani also pointed to corruption and nepotism in Iran and Lebanon and predicted that “Safawism as an ideology had already reached the point of bankruptcy”.

Saudi Arabia Wednesday expressed support for Rabat’s decision and said it “strongly condemns the Iranian interference in Morocco’s internal affairs.” Saudi Arabia has repeatedly called on Iran to stop its “meddling” in the affairs of the kingdom’s neighbours. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, staunch allies of Saudi Arabia, also expressed backing for the Moroccan move. Morocco is part of the Saudi-led anti-Iranian interference bloc and enjoys particularly close ties with Saudi Arabia.

On its part, Iran’s Foreign Ministry on May 2 hit back accusing Morocco of using the allegations as a “pretext” to sever diplomatic relations. Its statement said: “Remarks attributed to the foreign minister of Morocco about co-operation between an Iranian diplomat and the Polisario Front” in Western Sahara were “false”. It added: “The Islamic Republic respects the “sovereignty and security” of countries with which it has diplomatic relations, and follows a policy of “non-interference in (their) internal affairs”. At the same time, Iran’s ally Hezbollah rejected Rabat’s accusations and blamed the decision on foreign “pressure”, according to AFP.

Morocco had previously cut diplomatic links with Iran in 2009 and ties were gradually restored around 2014, but they were never strong, with Rabat backing Tehran’s arch-rival, Saudi Arabia.

Morocco claimed control of most of Western Sahara after the end of Spanish colonial administration of the territory in 1976. Fighting later broke out between Morocco and Polisario for control over Western Sahara in 1975 with Rabat taking over the vast desert territory before ending in a ceasefire in September 1991. An UN-brokered ceasefire in the former Spanish colony was initiated with the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara was deployed in the same year in an attempt to reach a lasting and mutually acceptable solution that would provide for the self-determination of Western Saharan people.

Polisario, however, still cannot agree with Morocco on the status of Western Sahara because Rabat considers Western Sahara an integral part of Morocco and proposes autonomy for the territory while the Polisario Front insists on a UN referendum over the independence of this vast territory which is rich in phosphate and other natural resources.

On Friday the U.N. Security Council backed a U.S.-drafted resolution that urges Morocco and the Polisario Front to prepare for talks on settling the decades-old conflict over Western Sahara. The council renewed for six months the mandate of a U.N. mission that has been monitoring a cease-fire in Western Sahara since 1991 and spelled out steps for a return to negotiations.

Earlier, on March 29 the UN Secretary-General António Guterres issued the international a report on the crisis of Western Sahara. The report was submitted in pursuant to Security Council Resolution 2351 by which the Council extended the mandate of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) until 30 April 2018. The report admits that the situation in Western Sahara, as far as MINURSO was able to observe, remained generally calm during the reporting period.

However, tensions between the parties, including on the unresolved issues concerning Guerguerat, as well as security concerns, continued to characterize the operational environment and mandate implementation of MINURSO.

In a letter dated 9 December 2017, the Secretary-General of Polisario, Brahim Ghali, protested that the crisis in Guerguerat had not been resolved, that no United Nations expert mission had been deployed and that no concrete action had been taken by the United Nations to implement the provisions of Security Council resolution 2351 (2017). He warned that Polisario would not “accept the continuation of this state of affairs”.

On 6 January, the UN Secretary-General expressed deep concern about recent increased tensions in Guerguerat, calling on the parties to exercise maximum restraint and to avoid escalating tensions. He also called for regular civilian and commercial traffic not to be obstructed and for no action to be taken that might constitute a change to the status quo of the buffer strip.

On 1 February, the Permanent Representative of Morocco, in a letter addressed to UN Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, reiterated the concern of Morocco over the continued presence of  Polisario near Guerguerat.

About Track Persia

Track Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.