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Morocco-Iran: A reconciliation fraught with pitfalls

By Achraf Tijani

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Posted on July 6, 2023 10:16

Iran Morocco Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian in Tehran, 5 November 2022.©UPI/Newscom/SIPA
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian in Tehran, 5 November 2022.©UPI/Newscom/SIPA

The overture made to Morocco by Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian has not gone unnoticed. Will it be enough?

It was on the occasion of Eid al-Adha – the feast of sacrifice for Shiite and Sunni Muslims – that Iran’s top diplomat, keen to confirm and deepen the diplomatic normalisation process begun since the agreement reached with Saudi Arabia, made a notable declaration on 29 June.

“We welcome […] the development of relations and normalisation with other regional and Muslim countries, including the Arab republic of Egypt and the brotherly Muslim state of Morocco,” he said.

This appeal followed the one made in October 2021, when Iran expressed its intention for “friendly” relations with the Kingdom of Morocco.

For now, however, the Moroccan authorities have not responded to Tehran’s soothing message. Since the 1980s, relations between the two countries have been turbulent, to say the least.

In 1981, Hassan II described Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran’s Islamic revolution, as a “heretic”. The Moroccan monarch also welcomed the Shah in person at Marrakech airport, causing a breakdown in diplomatic relations.

A long period of cold relations followed, interrupted by a slight upturn from 1998 onwards. That year, Tehran announced a freeze on its recognition of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), also known as the Western Sahara, following the breakdown of relations with Algeria in 1993.

Aggressive proselytising

These developments led to signing numerous bilateral cooperation agreements, mainly economic, culminating in the visit of Moroccan Prime Minister Abderrahmane Youssoufi to the country of the ayatollahs in 2001.

In practice, however, and even though additional protocols were signed in 2007 on the initiative of Foreign Trade Minister Abdellatif Maazouz, the volume of trade between the two nations has never reached the expected levels.

The situation took a new turn for the worse in 2009, when King Mohammed VI broke off ties with Tehran once again, unhappy with Iranian interference in the internal affairs of Sunni Bahrain and deeming Shiite proselytising in Morocco to be too aggressive – a matter that still taints relations between the two countries.

If Morocco resumes dialogue with Tehran, it will at the very least demand neutrality on the Western Sahara issue

The spread of Shiism in Morocco – which threatens what the kingdom calls “the spiritual security of Moroccans” – is an essential element,” says Zakaria Abouddahab, a political scientist and professor of international relations at Mohammed-V University in Rabat-Agdal. A foreign power that called into question the unity of Islam around the Alawite dynasty and the person of the King, who is the commander of the faithful, would represent a real danger to the Moroccan socio-political fabric.

Two stumbling blocks: Israel and Western Sahara

In February 2014, the two countries re-established their relations at Iran’s initiative. Moroccan Foreign Minister Salaheddine Mezouar explained that this rapprochement was conditional on “mutual respect for the religious and civilisational foundations of both parties”.

Despite these commitments, on 2 May 2018, Morocco cut the cord once again. This time, the decision was taken because of the financial and logistical support provided by the Iranian regime to the Polisario secessionist movement via Hezbollah. A situation which, according to the Moroccan authorities, continues to this day.

This raises the question of how the kingdom will respond to Tehran’s new proposal, in a general context of reconciliation between Arab-Muslim countries.

“All the chancelleries will be watching Morocco’s reaction closely,” says Alexandre Negrus, president of the Institute for Applied Geopolitical Studies (IEGA) in Paris. “Even if there is a rapprochement, we will be a long way from normalisation. If Morocco resumes dialogue with Tehran, it will at the very least demand neutrality on the Western Sahara issue,” he says.

“I find it hard to see, in the short term, how Morocco can move in the direction of Iran, which is Israel’s sworn enemy, while at the same time maintaining advanced relations with Tel Aviv,” says political scientist Abouddahab.

The restoration of relations with Saudi Arabia last March indicates that Iran is seeking to create a new regional dynamic and reduce its international isolation. “Iran is one of the most heavily sanctioned states in the world. It has no choice but to seek to change its relations. The move towards Morocco should be seen in this context,” says Negrus.

While awaiting Morocco’s response, Iran is continuing its efforts to become more open and welcoming. On 4 July, it was given the green light to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), where it has held observer status since 2005.

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