Morocco‘s break with Iran strengthens anti-terrorism coalition

After Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu displayed the purloined 55,000 Iranian documents and 183 CDs documenting Iran’s nuclear program, the White House reiterated its criticisms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), while confirming the authenticity of the data. While it appears there is no daylight between Israel and the US with respect to the failures of the nuclear deal, the UK, France, and Germany – considered to be some of the closest US allies – expressed skepticism regarding the presentation, arguing that the archives do not constitute evidence of ongoing nuclear research, which is what the JCPOA was supposed to prevent. Indeed, France’s President Emmanuel Macron stated that in light of these developments, the deal is more necessary than ever before.

Such comments reflect the vastly divergent positions European states and the US have with respect to the upcoming JCPOA withdrawal deadline on May 12. The European countries are financially invested in Iran, and are unlikely to withdraw from the deal without significant financial pressure. Security considerations, including Iran’s potential proliferation of nuclear weapons, aggression throughout the Middle East and ballistic missiles, which may eventually threaten Europe, appear to be of secondary concern.

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On the other hand, the day after the presentation, Morocco accused Iran of arming and training Polisario (an Algeria-backed separatist group which claims to represent tribes residing in Western Sahara, as well as the refugees in Algeria’s Tindouf camps) via Hezbollah, as well as of seeking to destabilize Morocco’s security and the region, by arming Shi’ite militias in the Ivory Coast and other African countries.

Morocco’s concern about its national sovereignty and Iran’s destabilization of Africa through proxy groups such as Hezbollah reflects similar concerns in the Trump administration, which made elimination of Hezbollah from Latin America one of its top priorities. Concerns about Polisario’s destabilizing activity have grown in recent weeks, as Polisario has been photographed with the help of satellites engaging in illegal and provocative maneuvers in the buffer zone between the territories under its control and Morocco. These tensions brought Algeria, which is seen as the main backer of Polisario, and Morocco to the brink of direct conflict.

Polisario’s security breach enhances the potential for al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Islamic State (ISIS) and other terrorist organizations to violate Morocco borders, threatening additional security issues. The US well understands the implications of this security concern and recently backed a UN resolution that incorporated more decisive language with respect to the resolution of the ongoing conflict between Polisario and Morocco, supporting Morocco’s vision of autonomy for the disputed territories according to the UN-backed peace plan, and eliminating the Polisario demand for an independence referendum.

From a security standpoint, Polisario would be yet another failing microstate.

Just as importantly, recent reports, including “Illicit Firearms Circulation and the Politics of Upheaval in North Africa” and “The UN Leadership in Role in Solving the Western Sahara Conflict: Progress, or Delays for Peace?” by Yasmine Hasnaoui, indicate that Polisario has been supplying AQIM with firearms.

It is also known to be one of top suppliers of firearms to various groups in Mauritania and other countries, and, as the statements by Moroccan officials indicate, does business and is trained by Hezbollah.

These developments, and Morocco’s bold step in severing ties with Iran, including relieving the Iranian charge d’affairs and calling Morocco’s own diplomatic representatives back from Iran, show that although Morocco’s concerns regarding Iran’s aggression are more regional than global, it shares the US concerns about stability in the region, arms proliferation, the destabilizing role of Hezbollah, and Iran’s support for militant ideologies and terrorist operations throughout Africa.

Iran’s Hezbollah is seeking to create a new front in Africa, a strategically vital continent that is also facing the threat of various Sunni terrorist organizations, as well as concerning state-level involvement by Russia, Turkey and Qatar. Just as US backing of Morocco’s position at the UN showed US interests and concerns in preventing further encroachment by terrorists and destabilization of its rising African ally, Morocco’s severance of ties with Iran shows the level of shared concerns.

In the past, Morocco ended its diplomatic ties with Tehran over its comments related to the Sunni control of majority-Shi’ite Bahrain. Relations between the two countries have been shaky, as Tehran is unforgiving of Morocco’s close alliance of Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states.

Morocco’s unapologetic and stalwart defense of its own and regional security and stability provides a significant contribution to the new anti-terrorist coalition, which is increasingly growing ties with the US. Whereas in the past European states would be taking the lead in counter-terrorism efforts, after the implementation of the JCPOA these countries have limited their actions to countering Sunni terrorist organizations or providing intelligence against Iran. In Yemen, the Arab coalition has taken the lead in countering the Iran-backed Houthis; increasingly, the Arab states have been backing stronger approaches to countering Iran’s influence across the Middle East.

SAUDI ARABIA vocally supported US, British and French air strikes on regime targets in Syria, although they were arguably of minimal strategic value.

Morocco’s contributions are becoming increasingly strategic and longterm, providing the lead in Africa that can ultimately provide cohesion to the defense alliances between the US, France and West African states, addressing the security shortcomings in the Sahel.

Morocco is also showing open willingness to counter Iran’s backing of terrorism in Africa, not just Sunni organizations, which puts it squarely on the same page with the anti-terrorism quartet (KSA, UAE, Egypt and Bahrain).

Additionally, Morocco has been part of the Arab coalition in Yemen, which shows that despite limited rhetoric on Iran’s role in Africa, Morocco fully understands the existential danger Iran’s backing of the Houthis presents to its Middle Eastern allies and global security, and its deep commitment to counter these threats.

Despite European intransigence, the US is finding itself joined by a growing number of Muslim majority states which share common threats, common security interests and increasingly, common values in seeing just, prosperous, free, secure and peaceful regions that are not under the yoke of either state or non-state aggressors.

The US would do well to recognize and reward such partnerships, particularly as a way of sending a message to the Europeans that the US is not alone in pursuing its own strategic security interests. At the same time, the furthering of these alliances will ultimately strengthen US positions and create a bulwark of well-prepared states that down the line will need increasingly less US involvement in order to secure the areas under their control.

The US should certainly continue working with its European partners to resolve ongoing differences and create a united front, however, adding strategic depth to the non-European states which have proven consistent, reliable and dedicated to the elimination of common threats, while showing respect for US security concerns, is both well deserved and practically necessary.

Morocco is a country undergoing a renaissance. It is developing rapidly through technological innovation, economic growth and cultural outreach.

High-level state visits are a good way to further the relationship, that can strengthen the US foothold in Africa and project America’s potential for a mutually beneficial positive role in that continent. Likewise, the US should also take into consideration its Gulf allies’ interest in strategic depth, and invest in growing the relationships with those of these countries that are actively countering both Iran and Sunni extremism.

Rather than viewing relationships with countries like Saudi Arabia as merely transactional, the Trump administration would be wise to consider the cohesion of the anti-terrorist coalition and invest in developing friendship that will not only send a strong message to its adversaries, but will outlast them, and benefit everyone involved.

The US has an interest in seeing the Middle East develop organically and with increasingly less need for intervention from the US; that can only happen when regional leaders have US backing, support and interest on the day-to-day level and in various ways, far beyond the conventional trade in oil and weapons. With respect to both Morocco and the Gulf States, the US is seeing an increasing outreach and pivot toward strengthening of ties on social, educational and cultural levels – all positive things that will benefit the transformation and development the US has always wished to see in these countries.

An increased involvement in supporting these efforts will put the US in a better position to provide advice and assistance with the reform of education, support for ideological strengthening against extremism and economic liberalization, growth of civil society institutions, and resolution of human rights issues and concerns.

The strengthening of such alliances is ultimately the best way to counter Iran or any other aggressive states; the deeper these relationships, the more difficult it is for belligerents to sow discord or attack vulnerabilities. It is time for the US to free itself from the constraints of outdated paradigms proposed by states with completely different concerns, and to open itself to new possibilities in line with its own national security interests and realities on the ground.

The author is a New York-based human rights and national security attorney who frequently writes about global geopolitics, with a focus on Morocco’s role in Africa and security and human rights issues in the Middle East.