Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita told Breitbart News last Wednesday that the Kingdom of Morocco supports the Trump administration’s policies towards Iran.
Comparing the Trump administration favorably to its predecessor, Bourita said, “We have an opportunity with this administration. We need to make things happen. We have an opportunity also because they are clear in their position about Iran.”
The exclusive interview, held at the Moroccan Embassy in Bucharest, Romania, focused on Morocco’s concerns regarding Iran’s multifaceted operations in North Africa; the threat these operations pose to Morocco and North and West Africa more generally; and Morocco’s hope to cooperate with the Trump administration in blocking Iran’s rise in the region.
Morocco has a history of poor relations with Iran. Rabat cut off ties with Tehran in 2009, and only renewed them in December 2016. The Kingdom cut relations off once again on May 1, 2018. Since then, Bourita has been avidly seeking U.S. support for the Kingdom’s efforts to confront and defeat the threat Iran now poses to North and West Africa.
The Kingdom’s stance suggests that former Obama administration officials — like former Secretary of State John Kerry, who has continued meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif — are wrong to claim that America’s allies stand opposed to President Donald Trump’s decision to abandon the nuclear deal with Iran.
In fact, the U.S. has many allies who are deeply supportive and encouraged by the Trump administration’s strategy for blocking Iran’s path to a nuclear arsenal and stopping its regional and global terror operations.
The Kingdom of Morocco, for one, clearly views the Trump administration’s determination to halt Iran’s efforts to become a hegemonic power in the Middle East, and over the Muslim world more broadly, with great enthusiasm and hope.
Asked why Morocco cut off ties with Iran in 2009, Bourita said, “Iran would like to be in North Africa. They tried to develop a presence in Morocco. Today they are repeating the efforts in other North African countries. They attracted some of our youth by giving them scholarships.”
“We used to have an Iranian cultural attaché in Rabat who has visited the small cities of Morocco making what he was calling book festivals. He was giving books. He was present in every small city,” Bourita added.
“We were asking ourselves why he has to promote the books of Iran there? And we noticed he was giving scholarships. We went from 10 people to 120 people [a year] who were given scholarships to study in Qom. From 2009-2016 we had no relations with Iran because of what they were doing with the scholarships.”
The Moroccan government viewed Iran’s missionary work among its youth as a means to undermine government authority by indoctrinating young Moroccans to reject the moderate Sunni Islam practiced in Morocco in favor of the radical Shia Islam of the Iranian regime.
Bourita explained that Iranian missionary work among the Moroccan diaspora has brought dire consequences to Europe.
“They are targeting our diaspora in Europe, in Belgium in particular. There, because of the hesitation of Europe to manage Islam, they were left to themselves.
“You have Moroccans who are supposed to adopt the Moroccan Islam which is moderate but they are now taught Islam by Afghans or Iranians or by different people. So in this we’ve seen — particularly in Belgium — some attacks against these cities [carried out by Moroccans] and we have the first Moroccan Association for Shia Islam created in Brussels.”
For decades, Morocco’s chief security concern has been the Sahara. Spain governed the Western Sahara as a colony until 1975. Upon the withdrawal of Spanish colonial authorities, Morocco and Mauritania annexed the territory. In 1979, Maurtania withdrew its forces from the Western Sahara and Morocco annexed the areas previously annexed by Mauritania.
In the early 1970s, a separatist movement called the Polisario was established with Soviet support. First serving as an anti-Spanish front in 1975, and openly backed by Algeria, Libya ,and Cuba, the Polisario launched a war for independence against Morocco, (and Mauritania, until 1979). In 1991 the parties agreed to a UN-brokered ceasefire, which was supposed to be followed by a referendum of the population of Western Sahara to determine its future.
The referendum has never taken place because Morocco and the Polisario have not been able to come to an agreement on who has the right to participate in a vote.
In April 2007, the Moroccan government presented an autonomy plan for governing the area based on the Spanish autonomy model applied in places like Catalonia. The U.S. and France both voiced support for it, as did the U.S. Congress. Under the Obama administration, however, the U.S. shifted its position to one of increased support for the Polisario, driving U.S.-Moroccan relations to a low point.
In the meantime, the Western Sahara has been the site of repeated riots and other acts of mayhem sponsored by the Polisario against Morocco. In 2005, the Polisario referred to its operations as its “Independence Intifadah,” along the lines of the Palestinian terror war against Israel.
Today, the Polisario controls some 20 percent of the territory of Western Sahara along its border with Algeria. Its training camps are based around the Algerian city of Tindouf, across the border with both the Western Sahara and Morocco. In 2010, the group organized mass demonstrations that it placed in the framework of the so-called Arab Spring.
In 2016, following Iran’s windfall profits from the nuclear deal, Iran stepped up its offensive operations both in the Middle East and worldwide. One of the hubs of its new efforts was North Africa. Specifically, in November 2016, both through its Lebanese Hezbollah foreign legion and through its diplomatic networks, Iran began sponsoring the Polisario. These operations were massively increased last year.
In March 2017, Morocco arrested Hezbollah financial kingpin Kasseem Tajideen in response to an Interpol arrest warrant issued by the organization’s Washington, DC, office. The Moroccans extradited Tajideen to the United States in May. The U.S. Treasury Department designated Tajideen as a global terrorist in 2009 due to his financial operations on behalf of Hezbollah. Those operations involve massive laundering of funds to Hezbollah through front companies in West Africa.
Bourita told Breitbart News that while the U.S., Israel, and other allies view Hezbollah as mainly a military threat, the Iranian proxy’s operations are far from limited to terrorist and military efforts. In North and West Africa, Hezbollah runs massive financial operations on behalf of Iran. These serve as a means to finance Iran’s global operations.
“You see Hezbollah as a military threat. In Africa we see it also as an economic threat. This Mr. Tajideen who was captured in Morocco was laundering money in Africa. All the benefits to Iran from Hezbollah are being reinvested in Africa. They are buying hotels, supermarkets. So don’t underestimate what Iran is doing in sub Saharan Africa also through financial actions.
“This gentleman [Tajideen], why was he important? He was linking Iran and Hezbollah and sub-Saharan Africa, West Africa in particular. For the United States he was a big fish because he knows the modus operandi for all of these operations. How the money was flowing and invested and coming back.”
As Breitbart News reported in May, beginning in November 2016 – one month before Morocco reinstated diplomatic relations with Iran — a Hezbollah delegation backed and directed by Amir Mousavi, the Iranian cultural attaché at the Iranian Embassy in Algiers, visited Polisario training camps in Tindouf, Algeria.
Bourita provided Breitbart News with a document detailing the vast contacts that have ensued between Hezbollah and Polisario Front commanders in Beirut and in Algeria since.
Following Tajideen’s arrest in Morocco in April 2017, Iran and Hezbollah escalated their involvement with the Polisario. Speaking with Fox News in May, Bourita revealed that Morocco had received documentation showing Iran had begun providing direct military assistance to the Polisario Front through Hezbollah.
Specifically, Hezbollah operatives in Tindouf delivered SAM-9 and SAM-11 surface-to-air missiles to Polisario Front training camps. These are sophisticated missiles, capable — among other things — of shooting down civilian jetliners. They are a step up from the more primitive SAM-7 (Strela) surface-to-air missiles, which have been the weapon of choice for Middle Eastern terror groups for decades.
Following Morocco’s discovery, Bourita flew to Tehran to confront the regime with Morocco’s documentation of the weapons shipments. Rabat chose to cut off its relations with Iran on May 1 after Bourita’s interlocutor refused to accept his evidence or commit to ending Iran’s sponsorship of the Polisario.
Bourita told Fox News that the Iranian arms shipments coincided with recent threats by the Polisario “to establish some military presence east of the Moroccan Sahara defense system.”
In other words, while receiving the Iranian weapons shipments, the Polisario was threatening Moroccan security.
In response to a question from Breitbart News last week, Bourita added that since his revelations of Iran’s direct military support for Polisario through Hezbollah, “People were told not to talk with Lebanese accents but to be more discreet when they are coming [to Tindouf]. This was not an instruction from Polisario but mainly from Algeria. To tell them to keep quiet and more discrete. They have even moved the training from the area where it was to an area in Tindouf that is more discrete.”
At the same time, Hezbollah began directly threatening the Moroccan Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, forcing the government to move its embassy to another location — away from Hezbollah-controlled southern Beirut — and recall most of its diplomatic personnel stationed at the embassy.
“We had to relocate our embassy and bring our people back from Lebanon and move our embassy because it had been in [Hezbollah controlled] southern Beirut,” he said.
“We are moving our embassy to the Sunni area [of Beirut],” Bourita added, “and we have requested coordination with some friends to protect our embassy.”
Bourita explained that Iran hopes to use its sponsorship of the Polisario to transform the regional conflict between Algeria and the Polisario on the one hand, and Morocco on the other, into a means to extend Iranian power in North and West Africa, particularly in states along the Atlantic coast line. And he argues that this is only one aspect of Iran’s “offensive push” in Africa.
“We think that what is happening with the Polisario is only part of an aggressive approach by Iran towards North and West Africa. We noticed before some activities in Senegal, in Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire, even in Guinea Bissou,” Bourita told Breitbart News.
“That area is an area where Morocco has traditionally had a religious presence because Islam was introduced to that region by Morocco. But we have noticed during the last ten years through the Lebanese again, through the Hezbollah an increasing religious presence of Iran,” he added.
“More religious scholarships are being given to students to study in Qom. More mosques are being built and more humanitarian organizations are opening in those countries. So we think that is also part of the offensive.
“In Cote d’Ivoire maybe the biggest mosque is a Shia mosque. This for us is the first attack against our interests.”
Bourita places Iran’s operations in North and West Africa in the context of its more general push for power in the Arab world.
“Iran thinks that it has control and is proud to say that it controls four or five capitals in the Arab world,” he said. “They have leverage on the Gulf countries through Qatar and Yemen and in Bahrain also. They are present in the Levant through Syria and Lebanon, Gaza and Iraq of course.
“And today they would like to have this control over the Arab world to also be present in North Africa. And they were looking into areas. We noticed some contacts in Libya through elements supported by Turkey and by Qatar in Misrata and in Tripoli.
“They think that the best way to develop influence is to find the disputes that they can exploit. And they found the Sahara issue.”
Polisario, Bourita explained, is an attractive organization for Iran and Hezbollah.
“Polisario has an advantage for Iran because they know the area. They are traffickers. The humanitarian aid [to Western Sahara] has been decreasing so they are smuggling many things, cigarettes, camels etc. They know the routes, the area. Second it’s a military movement so they have people who are ready.
“That’s why we think this connection between Hezbollah and Polisario is very dangerous for North Africa.”
Bourita will be in Washington early this week for meetings with senior administration officials, and he is hoping to secure U.S. support for Morocco’s efforts against Iran and Hezbollah as they deepen their ties to the Polisario and work to expand their destabilizing operations in North and West Africa.
He set out two separate areas where Morocco believes the U.S. can provide critical assistance.
“First, I think there was a mistake made before in the United States in thinking that the Arab Spring would help strengthen the moderate forces in the Arab world. I think the first thing is to help those states who can stand in front of Iran religiously, ideologically and in terms of credibility. I think it is important that the weakening of Iran would go also through the strengthening of some Sunni Arab countries.
“It shouldn’t be either the extreme Sunni or the Shia. There are Arab countries, like Morocco who are promoting moderate Islam who can be very critical voices in countering Iran on the ideological level in the OIC [Organization of Islamic Cooperation] and et cetera. It should not be viewed as a contest between Saudi Arabia and Iran. There are other perspectives.
“Strengthening those countries means strengthening their stability and their economic growth.”
Specifically, Morocco is hoping that the Trump administration will encourage increase foreign direct investment in the Moroccan economy.
Given the central role Polisario is now playing in Iran’s efforts in North and West Africa, Bourita believes that in light of expressed support from the George W. Bush administration for the 2006 Moroccan autonomy plan for the Western Sahara, it is vital for the Trump administration to take concrete steps to facilitate its implementation. This will help both stabilize the situation in North Africa and stop Iran’s power play in its tracks, he argues.
“The stability of Morocco is linked to the Sahara. It is not just an agenda item,” he said. “It is important for us to find a solution.”
Asked by Breitbart News whether he was referring to Morocco’s 2006 plan for Western Sahara autonomy, Bourita said yes.
“The administrations starting with [Bill] Clinton and then [George W.] Bush and even with this administration, they said clearly that the autonomy plan is a credible, serious and realistic solution to this issue. What we need today is how to go from here. First, not to just have a diplomatic statement but to go from statements to acts. If you consider this plan as serious, credible and realistic what can you do to help concretely to advance it?
“Second, the Polisario, how can the United States ask us today to sit with a military movement with the ideology of one leadership, one direction and everyone has to know how to use the arms?
“How can you ask Morocco to sit with these people to discuss the future of this territory? Do we think that non-state actors, military movements can be partners for peaceful solutions? Do we think the best way to help the Arab world to emerge in a stable fashion is to strengthen armed groups?”
Bourita maintains that in the medium and long-term, resolving the conflict in Western Sahara would have a profound impact on Arab politics generally by strengthening the most moderate Arab states.
“You know, North Africa has a very different perspective on the issues of the Arab world because we are close to Europe and far from the Middle East,” he said.
“Our contribution to the new Arab order could be different. Our perspective on the problems of the Middle East could be different. Today we have no role in this because we are divided and because we fighting each other. We and Algeria and Tunisia. And Libya is in chaos. Solving the issue of Western Sahara will also help the stability of North Africa. It will help us facing this offensive by Iran.
“The Trump administration for us has everything required to move this issue forward and we are seeking its assistance.”