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Examining Iran’s Geopolitical Goals in the Western Sahara Conflict

Since the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Tehran sided with the Polisario Front and Algeria against Morocco in the Western Sahara conflict case. Iranian position can be explained by dissecting Tehran’s political, geopolitical, and sphere of influence goals. Tehran uses Western Sahara to put pressure on Morocco’s position towards Iran, support Algeria, and help Hezbollah’s African activities and Tehran’s influence in North Africa.

Origins of the Tension

The conflict in Western Sahara has its roots in Morocco’s annexation of the desert strip along the Atlantic Ocean in 1975, following the departure of Spanish colonizers. Morocco annexed the strip of desert along the Atlantic Ocean in 1975 after the Spanish left their former colony. Morocco’s annexation led to the formation of the Algerian-supported independence movement, the Polisario Front, which considers itself the true representative of the natives of the Western Sahara.

After an UN-sponsored ceasefire in 1991, the Polisario Front backed down as Morocco gained the upper hand. The group currently controls a smaller part of Western Sahara and maintains a 150,000-person camp for Sahrawi natives in the Tindouf province in Algeria on the border with Morocco.

Tensions between Morocco and Iran over the Western Sahara dispute ignited in March 2017 when the Moroccan authorities arrested Lebanese Hezbollah financier Kassim Tajideen in Casablanca en route to Beirut from Guinea-Bissau. According to the U.S. Treasury Department, Tajideen provided funding for Hezbollah in cash bundles as large as $1 million. Following his arrest, he was extradited to the U.S. and prosecuted for terror-related charges. Tajideen’s arrest increased tensions between Hezbollah and Morocco, and some observers argue that it drew the Polisario Front and Hezbollah closer together. Their direct relationship appears to have begun in 2016 when Hezbollah formed a committee in Lebanon to support the Polisario Front.

On May 1, 2018, Morocco severed relations with Iran, “Hezbollah sent military officials to Polisario and provided the front with…weapons and trained them on urban warfare,” Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita said. After Morocco severed ties with Iran in 2018, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, tweeted his support to the Moroccon action. In response, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasimi commented, “of course, Morocco’s action came at the request of Saudi.”

The Impact of the Abraham Accords

The Abraham Accords, signed by Morocco in December 2020, significantly threatened Iran with diplomatic isolation and a precarious security situation as it faced encirclement. As Iran’s regional nemesis, Tel Aviv regularly engaged with Tehran in numerous proxy and cyber wars to threaten their respective regional security positions. Some examples include the mutual targeting of commercial ships with drones, proxy and direct conflict incidents in Syria, Tehran’s statements that Israel assassinated Iranian nuclear scientists, cyber-attacks that targeted national filling stations, and the cutoff of subsidized gasoline in most of Iran’s provinces for eight days in October 2021, for which Tehran directly blamed Israel.

The diplomatic partnership between Morocco and Israel is further enforced by the fact that more than one million Israelis are of Moroccan origin, and Morocco’s Jewish community enjoys recognition and appropriate political rights as declared in the 2011 Moroccan constitution. Further, air flights between Morocco and Israel were established, and number about 17 flights per week. According to the annual report of the Abraham Accords Peace Institute, about 200,000 Israelis visited Morocco in 2022, up by 401 percent since 2019, while 2,900 Moroccans visited Israel last year.

Israel’s increasingly positive relationship with Morocco concerns both Iran and Algeria. In December 2020, Algerian Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djera decried the Abraham Accords as an effort to bring “the Zionist entity” closer to Algeria’s border. In response, Algeria improved its relations with China and Russia. The conflict in Western Sahara, and the emergence of the Polisario Front, naturally bring Algeria and Iran together to support secessionist movements in Morocco.

Iran Building Influence in Africa

Iran has consistently worked to penetrate Africa by supporting Shiite movements to expand its geopolitical and natural interests. Tehran’s regional foes view Iran’s plans in Africa as a direct threat. Iran views Africa as a potential location to increase connectivity and reduce diplomatic isolation through its key pillars, “Look to the East” and “Third Worldism.” Iran expanded its influence in many African countries because they share anti-Western and anti-imperialist ideologies. One example of Iran’s anti-Western diplomacy is when Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visited Guinea-Bissau in August 2021 and introduced the Islamic Republic as a “friend and a real partner” that “seeks the independence and progress of the people of [the African] continent through mutual interests.”

In addition to seeking economic opportunities such as exporting oil, offering export incentives to about 30 countries, and large-scale trade in liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), iron, steel, cement, and other products, Iran has ideologically supported various Shia extremist groups throughout the Middle East and Africa.

Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, the leader of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria, continued his Islamist goals in Nigeria after visiting Iran and meeting with Ayatollah Khomeini. His political movements resulted in an attack on the group by the Nigerian military in 2015, killing more than 300 people and the arrest of  Zakzaky and his wife.

Iran’s arms transfers through various African military groups has led to some North African countries opposing Tehran’s ideological views and geopolitical moves. Examples include the arms transfers through Somalia to the Houthis in Yemen or the shipment of kamikaze drones to the Polisario Front in Morocco. As a result of these concerns, the foreign ministers of the Arab League took coordinated steps to remove the Arabic-speaking Iranian news and religious channels Al-Alam and Al-Kawthar from the Badr satellite in 2017.

Examining Iran’s broader goals in establishing a geopolitical sphere of influence in Western Sahara reveal its more specific motives and actions in the region. Iran’s support of the Polisario Front is related to Tehran’s effort to combat U.S. influence in the Persian Gulf and the broader region. The financial support offered to Morocco by the GCC states and Iran’s support of the Polisario Front led Morocco to oppose Iran and its regional agenda.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

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Dr. Mohammad Salami holds a Ph.D. in International Relations. He is a specialist in Middle Eastern policy, particularly in Syria, Iran, Yemen, and the Persian Gulf region. His areas of expertise include politics and governance, security, and counterterrorism. He writes as an analyst and columnist in various media outlets. Follow him on Twitter: @moh_salami

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