In a surprise move, Morocco announced this week it would sever diplomatic ties with Iran over its military support for the Polisario Front, an armed group that seeks to end Morocco’s control over the Western Sahara.
Morocco’s Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita said his country would close its embassy in Tehran and would expel the Iranian ambassador in Rabat, adding that Morocco’s ambassador had already left Tehran. Bourita stated that “the Kingdom has irrefutable evidence, identified names and specific facts that corroborate this complicity between the Polisario and Hezbollah against the higher interests of Morocco.” Hezbollah reportedly delivered weapons to the Polisario, including SAM-9, SAM-11, and Strela missiles.
According to Bourita, the relationship between Hezbollah and the Polisario Front began in 2016 when Hezbollah formed a committee in Lebanon to support the people of Western Sahara. Later, a military delegation from Hezbollah visited Tindouf in Algeria. However, the turning point came on March 12, 2017 when Kassim Tajideen, a key financier of Hezbollah in Africa whom the U.S. Treasury Department had sanctioned, was detained at Casablanca airport en route from Guinea to Beirut. Hezbollah threatened to retaliate and started sending weapons to Tindouf as well as training Polisario fighters in urban warfare.
Arab League and Gulf states have expressed solidarity with Morocco. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir accused Iran of “destabilizing the security of Arab and Islamic countries,” while UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash condemned Iran’s “interference” in Morocco’s internal affairs. Qatar denounced attempts to undermine Morocco’s territorial integrity without mentioning Iran or Hezbollah.
For its part, Iran denied the “false” accusations by Morocco. Hezbollah also denied Morocco’s “groundless” allegations, saying that it “made such false accusations under pressure from the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia.” Likewise, the Polisario Front denied having any military ties with Iran or Hezbollah and urged Rabat to present evidence of these “false allegations.”
This is not the first time that Rabat has severed its ties with Teheran. In March 2009, Morocco cut ties after Iran threatened the territorial integrity of Bahrain by questioning Sunni minority rule in the Shiite-majority Gulf state. In 2014, Rabat and Tehran restored relations, though they remained uneasy.
If the allegations are true, it shows that Tehran and Hezbollah have extended their campaign of destabilization across the Arab world, beyond the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula. If it is possible to corroborate Morocco’s charges, Washington should do so as part of the American effort to shut down Hezbollah’s global military network. As tensions continue to rise across the region, the U.S. has an opportunity to reassure its partners that it will not allow Tehran or its allies to destabilize them.
Romany Shaker is an Arabic-language research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @RomanySh.
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