Last week, Morocco’s foreign ministry announced its decision to severe ties with Iran, accusing the country and Hezbollah of training and arming the Polisario Front, the Western Saharan independence movement. Almost immediately, the decision drew reactions from across the region. Ministers from Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia expressed their support for Morocco. The Polisario Front, Iran, and Hezbollah also reacted, strongly denying Morocco’s allegations. The following day, Algeria summoned Morocco’s ambassador to reject Morocco’s allegations. Morocco’s recent move to cut ties with Iran fits into a broader regional dynamic that goes beyond the Western Saharan conflict and has less to do with Moroccan-Iranian relations than it does with Morocco’s relationship with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the United States.
Ties between Morocco and Iran have been marred by tensions ever since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. After fleeing to Egypt, Mohammad Reza Shah arrived to Morocco at King Hassan II’s “personal invitation,” during which Hassan II refused Ayatollah Khomeini’s repeated requests to extradite him back to Iran. Before Morocco cut ties with Iran last week, the countries had only recently reestablished ties in 2014. The resumption of ties in 2014 came after Morocco ended diplomatic relations with Iran in 2009 in a show of support with Bahrain after an adviser to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that Iran “had sovereignty over Bahrain.” Morocco had also alleged that Iran was attempting to spread Shi’ism in Morocco in what it described as an affront to “the kingdom’s religious fundamentals.” While these already shaky ties between the countries indicate that Morocco’s decision to once again cut ties with Iran is no major loss for either country, for Morocco, such a move has already begun to yield diplomatic benefits.
Prior to this decision, Morocco’s relationship with the GCC and the United States stood on rocky ground as it struggled to situate itself in light of Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s deepening powers and his close relationship with the Trump administration. After Gulf countries ended diplomatic and economic ties with Qatar, Morocco attempted to strike a neutral tone during the crisis, offering to facilitate negotiations between the Gulf countries. Morocco joined Iran and Turkey in announcing that it would send Qatar food shipments to help the country cope with the blockade. In a hashtag, Qataris on social media affectionately referred to King Mohammed VI as the “blockade breaker.” During Mohammed VI’s visit to Qatar in November last year, an image began widely circulating on social media showing him holding a banner that read “You have the world, we have Tamim,” an image the Moroccan palace decried as a fake. More recently, Turki Al-Sheikh, chairman of Saudi Arabia’s General Sports Authority and advisor to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman hinted that it would not support Morocco’s bid to host the World Cup in 2026, posting a tweet that read: “No one asked us to support their 2026 bids. If someone did ask us, we will look for the best interests of Saudi Arabia. The grey area is no longer acceptable for us.” (The only countries competing to host the 2026 World Cup are Morocco and a joint North American bid between Canada, Mexico, and the United States). In addition, notably absent from this year’s Arab League Summit held in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia was Mohammed VI, despite initial reports that he would be attending.
During Trump’s official visit to Saudi Arabia last year, Moroccan media was rife with contradictory reports about whether or not Mohammed VI would be attending the “Arab Islamic American Summit” that was held in Riyadh in May last year. After initial reports lauded a much-anticipated meeting between Trump and Mohammed VI, the meeting between the two never happened because Mohammed VI did not travel to Saudi Arabia, making him one of the notably absent regional leaders during the summit. Prior to the summit, Mohammed VI made a stop in Florida after a vacation in Cuba, where again, Moroccan media was rife with reports that the stop in Florida was for an impromptu meeting between Trump and Mohammed VI to be held in Mar-A-Lago. The meeting never happened, and online reports cited Trump’s alleged refusal to meet Mohammed VI due to his support of Hillary Clinton. Morocco’s support for Hillary Clinton was a recurring focal point during the presidential campaign, after it was revealed that Mohammed VI committed to giving $12 million to the Clinton Foundation with the understanding that Clinton herself would attend a fundraiser in Morocco slated for May 2015 (Bill and Chelsea Clinton ended up attending in her place). Trump’s decision to appoint John Bolton as a national security advisor risked further isolating Morocco, given his previous work in advocating for a referendum on the Western Sahara territory, and siding against Morocco’s autonomy plan.
The question of timing indicates that Morocco’s decision was driven by its interests in currying the GCC and United States’ favor as they seek to further isolate Iran. Morocco announced its decision on 1 May, just one day after the Israeli Prime Minister delivered a dramatic speech widely regarded as seeking to discourage Trump from renewing the Iran deal—a decision Trump will have to make by 12 May. An important question arises about this timing. Morocco says that the ties between the Polisario Front and Hezbollah have been in place since 2016, claiming a Hezbollah delegation visited Tindouf, the southern Algerian province where the Polisario Front is based, as well as where over 100,000 Sahrawi refugees live in displacement as a result of the Western Saharan conflict since 1975. If Morocco claims these ties existed since 2016, it would have had at least two opportunities to present its evidence to the United Nations Security Council, which just recently voted to renew the MINURSO peacekeeping mission in the Western Sahara on 27 April for a period of six months. Further clouding Morocco’s claims are how pro-Morocco pundits have, for years, been alleging ties between the Polisario Front and Al Qaeda. And decades prior to that, Hassan II repeatedly characterized the Polisario as a pro-Soviet/socialist/communist movement in an attempt to frame the conflict within the dominating rhetoric of the Cold War.
Additionally, the fact that MINURSO was renewed for a period of six months as opposed to the usual year-long term indicates the already shifting dynamics resulting from John Bolton’s role in the Trump administration. The United States, which is the penholder for the Security Council resolution that renews the MINURSO peacekeeping mission, explicitly stated that the decision to renew MINURSO for only six months was driven by the aim of bringing an end to the conflict and to place pressure on the parties to begin talks. During remarks explaining the US position on renewing MINURSO, Amy Tachco, political coordinator for the US Mission to the United Nations, said the following: “So this year, the United States has taken a different approach with this renewal. Our goal is to send two messages. The first is that there can be no more ‘business as usual’ with MINURSO and Western Sahara. The second is that the time is now to lend our support, our full support for Personal Envoy Kohler in his efforts to facilitate negotiations with the parties. The United States wants to see progress at last in the political process meant to resolve this conflict. That is why we have renewed the MINURSO mandate for six months, instead of one year. Over the next six months we expect that the parties will return to the table and engage Personal Envoy Kohler.” The statement goes on to quote John Bolton in the end.
Ultimately, Morocco has been seeking to marginalize and discredit the Polisario Front in any potential negotiations on the conflict, repeatedly emphasizing its condition that Algeria be a participating party in the negotiations, not just the Polisario. By casting the Polisario Front as an Iranian proxy, Morocco is pandering to the rhetoric and geopolitical interests of its US and Gulf allies to appeal for their support in potential talks at the expense of further isolating the Polisario. European countries that have been adamant about maintaining the Iran nuclear deal, such as France, have been notably silent about Morocco’s decision to cut ties with Iran, despite the fact that France has been one of Morocco’s strongest supporters in its conflict over the Western Sahara. In severing ties with Iran, Morocco has not only advanced its own interests over the Western Sahara, but it has anchored itself as an ally of the GCC and of the United States—all at a fairly low cost. With or without concrete evidence, which Morocco has yet to present, the allegations fall into broader attempts at isolating Iran and will likely be referenced as another justification for abandoning the Iran nuclear deal.