While diplomats debate what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s revelations of a secret Iranian nuclear archives mean, 2,500 miles away another press conference dropped another surprising bombshell alleging Iranian malfeasance.
On May 1, Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita informed an assembled crowd of journalists, “I have just returned from the Islamic Republic of Iran, where I had a meeting with Iranian minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Javad Zarif. I informed him of the decision of the Kingdom of Morocco to break off its diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
The charges Bourita leveled were serious. "This month Hezbollah sent [surface-to-air] SAM-9, SAM-11 and Strela missiles to the Polisario with the connivance of Iran's embassy in Algiers," he told reporters.
At issue is the Polisario Front, a Cold War relic and Algerian proxy which claims to be the self-styled Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic and has conducted a terrorist and military campaign against Morocco since 1975, claiming Morocco’s southern provinces, the so-called Western Sahara, as its own. While history is clear that the Western Sahara was and should be Moroccan, the attempt to subvert Moroccan security and outreach to the Polisario are important.
It was not simply a rogue operation. After all, what the Moroccans exposed was not Iran’s first attempt to destabilize their kingdom. In March 2009, Morocco severed relations with Iran after agents linked to Iran began proselytizing Shiism in Morocco, a country where the king holds not only a political role but a religious one as well. Five years later, Rabat restored relations, although Moroccan security officials made clear that they would be ensuring that Iranian diplomats and citizens would cross no more red lines. That the Islamic Republic once again sought to undermine Morocco suggests authorities in Tehran do not plan to stop.
While diplomats like to pretend that Iran’s bad behavior is rooted in grievance (a reassuring assumption because diplomacy can resolve grievance) the reality is that ideology shapes Tehran actions. Make no mistake: Iran’s problems with Morocco are ideological. Not only is Morocco firmly in the more liberal, Western camp but it has been at the forefront to fight radical Islamism.
True, Iran might be Shiite and Morocco Sunni, but Iran’s clerical leaders while seeing the difference have no desire to abide by them. Both revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei, his successor as supreme leader, believe themselves the leaders of the Islamic world, not simply the Shiite world. While Morocco might seem peripheral to those focused more on war and conflict in the Middle East, theologically, the work Morocco does is deeper and more theologically legitimate than the slick counterextremism initiatives put forward by wealthier Persian Gulf states.
Iran’s outreach to the Polisario Front is also interesting. Iran has no interest in Sahrawi independence or the Polisario’s supposed cause, which an increasing number of Polisario defectors make clear is empty. Indeed, it seems increasingly the only true believers in the Polisario’s stated mission are a few useful idiots in New Zealand, Spain, and Sweden who have never met an authoritarian movement they can’t glorify. Rather, the Polisario today is about smuggling and money. They have lost their Soviet patrons and the Cubans are focused elsewhere. Even Algeria is no longer a sure thing as Algeria’s aging dictator Abdelaziz Bouteflika enters the last months if not weeks of his life. Simply put, the Polisario have become the prostitutes of global terrorism, looking for patrons who will rent their smuggling networks or fund their leader’s lavish lifestyle.
The Polisario has had no qualms smuggling terrorists, weapons, and other contraband for al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, nor have they shied away from being a link in the elaborate smuggling network that sees South American cartels deliver cocaine to Hezbollah operatives among the Lebanese Diaspora in West Africa and then move it up the interior through the Sahara to Europe. That they would now smuggle weapons and perhaps even use those missiles and rockets against an ally of France and the U.S. should not surprise. They are, for Iran, a tool of opportunity.
The Islamic Republic of Iran is interested in neither peace nor security. The nuclear revelations are one piece of the puzzle, but efforts to destabilize a country so far from Iran is another. Iranian-backed militias and the Qods Force actively seek to undermine sovereignty in Lebanon and Iraq; sponsor unrest in Bahrain; and fuel civil war in Syria and Yemen. Morocco is simply the sixth Arab country in Iran’s sights.
If they can destabilize Morocco, they and their proxies can threaten shipping at the Strait of Gibraltar a strategic chokepoint every bit as important as the Strait of Hormuz and Bab al-Mandab, both of which Iranian missiles and suicide boats now threaten. At the very least, they can kneecap perhaps the most successful model of regional tolerance and peacemaking the Arab world and Africa have.
Alternately, Iran’s strategy may be more mundane. With the U.S. distracted by its own political naval-gazing and its willingness to stand by allies in question, Tehran may figure they can test the resolve of the U.S. and France from afar.
It is essential that the Trump administration and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo not allow Iran to get away with it. There is no such thing as a passive alliance. All allies need attention, and their security concerns deserve respect and support.
Morocco, from the time it became the first country to recognize American independence, has always stood by the U.S. in its hours of need. The U.S. should return the favor. It should formally bless Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara and provide Morocco with every counterterror resource it might need to roll back the Polisario and Iranian threat. And it’s time to end permanently the naivete which for decades has allowed Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to act with impunity not only in the Middle East, but also Africa.
Michael Rubin (@Mrubin1971) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon official.