Iran’s regional ambitions in the Middle East from Syria and Lebanon to Yemen are well known. What is new is that Tehran is widening the geographic scope of its expansionism into North Africa as well. In the last two weeks we have seen definitive proof that the Iranian regime seeks to intervene in the conflict over the Western Sahara by backing the Polisario forces fighting the army of Morocco, a long-term Western ally.
This is not just another obscure conflict thousands of miles away. Iran’s goal is to destabilize this area. It is working with Algeria, Morocco’s eastern neighbor, whose leadership has been at the forefront of radical Arab politics for decades. The Polisario seek to break off the area of the Western Sahara from Morocco, creating an irredentist movement that will threaten the territorial integrity of the Moroccan Kingdom.
Iran used its embassy in Algeria to advance its aims, making it a conduit for the supply of weapons and financial aid. The Iranians utilized their traditional proxy, Hizbullah, for this operation. Hizbullah is a critical arm for Iran in the Middle East since their operatives speak Arabic, as opposed to Farsi (Persian), the language spoken in Iran.
Morocco now has documentation of arms deliveries that were made by Hizbullah to the Polisario. These included SAM-9 and SAM-11 surface-to-air missiles, and not just the older-generation SAM-7 (Strela) missiles that have previously proliferated throughout the Middle East. These missiles could take down commercial aircraft.
One of the key figures at the nexus of the Iranian-Polisario relationship is Iran’s cultural attaché in its embassy in Algiers, Amir Mousavi. It is no wonder that upon learning what Iran was up to, Morocco cut off diplomatic relations with Tehran on May 1. Hizbullah has provided training to the Polisario since 2016. A Hizbullah delegation visited the Polisario headquarters in the Tindouf area in western Algeria. Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita disclosed that the first shipment of Iranian weaponry was sent to the Polisario in April 2018. Iranian civilian assistance in Africa has been going on for years. In 2009, Tehran took over an Israeli hospital in Mauritania to the south of Morocco.
The Consequences: A Possible New Wave of Refugees into Europe
The consequences of this escalation in the Sahara are well known to policymakers. Iran’s involvement in Iraq and Syria led to a wave of mostly Sunni Arab refugees in the eastern Mediterranean who poured into Europe. In recent years there also has been a growing wave of African migrants traveling via Libya to Italy.
A new conflict over the Western Sahara could potentially create an additional center of instability leading to a further wave of refugees into Europe. Morocco sits across the Straits of Gibraltar, roughly 9 miles from Spain, and could present a new focal point for refugees in the aftermath of any destabilization. The suggestion appearing in the Arab press that the Iranians hope to recruit terrorists for destabilizing the Middle East and even threatening Europe should not be dismissed.