The competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran is expanding. The latest evidence of their jostling surfaced last week in Morocco, where the government and the Polisario Front, a group fighting for the independence of Western Sahara, wrapped up United Nations-brokered talks on Dec. 6 with an agreement to meet again next year. It’s a small but important step in a long, slow process. The U.N. has been trying to get Rabat and Polisario back to the table since a disagreement scuttled the last round of talks in 2012. And it owes the success of the recent discussions in no small part to the rivalry between Riyadh and Tehran.
Morocco has long been a Saudi ally. It depended on support and weapons from Saudi Arabia during its war in Western Sahara from 1975-1991, and in 2015 it joined the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, contributing a squadron of warplanes to the effort. As a Sunni country, moreover, Morocco is wary of Iran and its revolutionary ambition to spread Shiite Islam. Rabat severed relations with Iran in 2009, accusing Tehran of trying to convert Moroccan Muslims to Shiism. After resuming ties in 2014 – under the condition that Iran stop proselytizing on its territory – Morocco again broke things off with the Islamic republic this year over allegations that Hezbollah was arming the Polisario Front, with Tehran’s sanction, through the Iranian diplomatic mission in Algeria. Iran vehemently denied the accusation, as did Algeria, though it harbors Polisario’s exiled government and has supported the group to pressure Morocco, with which Algeria has had border disputes and rocky relations.
Many have questioned Iran’s interests in the Morocco-Western Sahara dispute. But a clear strategic logic supports the notion that Iran has been backing Polisario. According to Morocco, Iran’s support for the group began in 2016, shortly after the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen began. Supporting Polisario would give Tehran a way to try to coerce Rabat into withdrawing from the Saudi coalition effort against the Houthis, an Iranian proxy.
If that was Iran’s strategy, it seems to have worked. Morocco withdrew its squadron from Yemen in April, after Houthi forces downed one of its F-16s, citing the growing risk in Western Sahara, where Rabat claimed Polisario forces were trying to declare a regional capital. The Moroccan government announced it would not tolerate such a move and again suspended relations with Iran the next month. Then in August, it reinstated military conscription. The decision was doubtless meant in part to divert the growing number of unemployed youth in the country from more radical activities – but it was also a way to augment Morocco’s forces along the border with and in the occupied zones of Western Sahara.
Other Forces at Play
Despite Morocco’s decision to pull out of Yemen, however, Iran is still on weak footing in the Middle East. The Saudi coalition’s recent offensive in Hodeida succeeded enough to compel the Houthis to attend peace negotiations in Sweden, after they refused to participate in the previous round of talks in Switzerland in September. The development may well signal to other Iranian proxies that their benefactor, tied down as it is closer to home, lacks the clout to secure their interests. And it’s probably part of the reason Polisario opted to take another shot at peace talks with Morocco.
Iran’s weakness isn’t the only factor at play, though. After all, the conflict between Morocco and Polisario started long before Iran’s alleged support for the movement in Western Sahara did. By far the greater consideration for Polisario is Algeria. It’s a critical ally, since it hosts Polisario’s exiled government. But in November, Morocco offered to hold talks with Algeria without any preconditions or restrictions on what topics they would cover, indicating that it is open to a compromise over the border issue. Algeria has yet to respond to the suggestion, but Morocco seems eager to reach a resolution. (On the other hand, Algeria did participate in the talks with Polisario as a neutral party, a designation Rabat objected to because of its claims that Algeria has actively participated in the conflict.) Were Algeria able to secure favorable terms with Morocco over their border and territorial disputes, it may have less reason to maintain its support for Polisario’s fight in Western Sahara. For Polisario, losing Algeria’s backing would be a far heavier blow than losing Iran’s.
Morocco’s interest in negotiating with Algeria suggests that larger forces may be at work here. For example, the United States, a close ally of Morocco (which was the first state to recognize U.S. independence) could be leaning on Rabat to resolve its differences with Algiers and reduce Algeria’s incentive for cooperating with Iran. The last thing Washington wants is for cozy relations between the two to pave the way for a Hezbollah presence in North Africa. The U.S. has taken similar steps elsewhere in the world, such as in the Horn of Africa. Washington probably had a hand in arranging the detente between Ethiopia and Eritrea earlier this year in a bid to secure access to the Red Sea that doesn’t depend on Djibouti, which is becoming increasingly crowded with foreign competitors.
For Algeria and Morocco alike, foreign interest – whether from Iran or from the U.S. – could be a powerful tool for achieving their regional goals. If Morocco’s allegations are true, Algeria may very well have gained an important bargaining chip by allowing Hezbollah to operate within its borders. Now, in its negotiations with Morocco, it will be able to offer something the U.S. desires: a diminished Iranian presence in North Africa.