Since the Islamic Revolution in Iran, relations between Tehran and Rabat have swung between relative calm and rupture.
Despite the strategic importance that Iran attaches to the countries of North Africa, it has been unable to sustain a good long-term relationship with Morocco.
This is mirrored in the Iranian regime’s foreign policy approach towards Morocco, which is inclined towards animosity and coercion.
Tensions between the two countries have peaked to breaking point three times during the past 40 years.
The first occurred in 1981, when Morocco received Shah Mohamed Reza Pahlavi after his overthrow. Imam Khomeini, in response, officially declared his government’s support for the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), declared by the Polisario Front from Algiers in 1977.
Although the two countries restored diplomatic ties in 1991, tensions soon flared again, especially when Rabat sided with Manama after Iranian officials declared Bahrain an “Iranian province”.
Morocco also accused Iranian diplomats in Rabat of practising Shia evangelism in the country. Iranian-Moroccan diplomatic relations resumed in 2016 only to fall apart again this year.
On 1 May, Rabat officially cut relations with Tehran and expelled the Iranian ambassador, charging that Iran was actively supporting the Polisario by providing it training and arms through Hizbullah operatives present in Algeria.
As the crisis intensified and other countries entered into the fray, the multi-tiered nature of the crisis has become increasingly apparent.
At the same time, the latest crisis is the product of a lengthy accumulation of differences and disputes between the two countries over a range of issues.
Since the Islamic Revolution, the Iranian regime has seen the Polisario Front as an important means to assert pressure on Morocco and punish it for Moroccan stances on matters of concern to Tehran.
Khomeini’s recognition of and support for Polisario in response to Morocco’s sheltering of the deposed Shah set the initial outlines for this policy.
However, recently, Iran began to escalate it by providing financial and military support to the front.
Apparently, it seeks to create a military phalanx against Morocco using Polisario fighters, trained and armed by Hizbullah operatives.
Recently, the movements of these operatives have been detected inside Morocco, itself. The most significant incident, in this regard, came to light with the arrest, in Casablanca Airport on 12 March 2017, of Hizbullah’s finance officer Qassem Mohamed Taj Al-Din.
The foregoing unfolded against the backdrop of Morocco’s support for numerous Arab stances detrimental to Iranian interests. It has opposed Iranian support for Shia political activity in Bahrain and Iranian support for the Houthis in Yemen.
It joined the Saudi-led coalition to restore the legitimate government in Sanaa and contributed troops to Operation Storm of Resolve.
In general, Morocco has drawn closer to the Arab Gulf countries with which it has forged a consensus on many regional issues, especially since the Moroccan-Gulf summit in April 2016.
Tehran, for its part, has worked to forge closer political and cultural relations with Algeria. Taking advantage of the Algerian-Moroccan border dispute, it has sought to rally Algiers to its side and use it as a platform to threaten Moroccan interests.
But to Rabat, Iranian sectarian activity inside Morocco is the most important and constant threat, especially since Moroccan authorities unearthed and dismantled a Shia proselytising network, called Belairaj, in 2008. They also discovered another network, called Ansar Al-Mahdi.
Morocco has accused Algeria of colluding with Iran’s military support for Polisario. It charged that Algiers has facilitated the training activities given to the front’s fighters by Hizbullah military experts supported by Iran.
Rabat has been suspicious of the Iranian presence in Algeria for some time, especially since the latter’s positions coincide with Iranian interests in the region.
On the Syrian crisis, in particular, Algiers implicitly supports the Iranian-backed Bashar Al-Assad regime through its support of the option to allow Al-Assad to remain in power.
Morocco’s decision to sever diplomatic relations with Iran has increased Iran’s mounting isolation in the region at a time when it is facing Western pressures over the nuclear agreement it signed with the P5+1 (the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany).
The US administration has threatened to pull out of the agreement, which would effectively void it and cause Iran to lose the gains it had acquired through the partial lifting of the international sanctions that had weighed on it for many years.
At another level, the Moroccan-Iranian rupture is further indication of potential escalation on the Moroccan-Algerian front.
It is noteworthy that Algiers has sided with Tehran in this crisis. It denounced the Moroccan decision to sever relations with Iran and it summoned the Moroccan ambassador to question him on the accusations that Rabat levelled against Algiers.
Morocco’s diplomatic rupture with Iran will also work in favour of closer Gulf-Moroccan cooperation and coordination over many regional issues, especially those related to concerns over the expansion of Iranian influence and Iran’s political designs in the region.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 May 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly with headline: Morocco-Iran split