Iran’s response to President Donald Trump’s May 8 announcement that he was withdrawing the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal, has been striking.
Iran’s first response, issued by President Hassan Rouhani, was to issue a blanket rejectionof Trump’s move.
On Wednesday, Iran revealed its strategy for dealing with the Trump administration. It expects the European Union (EU) to act as its proxy.
Iran’s “Supreme Leader”Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a statement Wednesday in which he set out five demands for the EU to fulfill. If it fails to do so, he warned, Iran will resume its full nuclear operations.
First, Khamenei insisted that the EU “guarantee the total sales of Iran’s oil,” and so make up any losses Iran is set to incur due to U.S. sanctions.
Second, he said that European banks “must guarantee business transactions with the Islamic Republic.” (If European banks fulfill this demand, they will be blacklisted and frozen out of the U.S. financial system.)
Third, he demanded that the EU convince the UN Security Council to issue a resolution condemning America’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal.
Fourth, the Iranian dictator demanded that the EU “stand firmly against U.S. sanctions on Iran.”
Finally, Khamenei said that while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted Monday that Iran’s nuclear program be dealt with in the context of its other malign behavior — including its ballistic missile program, its sponsorship of terrorism and its actions to assert hegemonic power across the Middle East through its proxies and directly — the Europeans “must guarantee [they] will not raise the issue of the Islamic Republic’s missiles and regional affairs.”
The first question that comes to mind when considering Khamenei’s list of demands is: What is he thinking?
True, the Europeans strongly opposed Trump’s decision to abandon the nuclear deal, and they still don’t seem to have come to terms with it. But there can be no doubt that the U.S. is more important to the Europeans than Iran is.
Not only has the U.S. military protected Europe since it liberated Western Europe from the Nazis in 1945, but the U.S. is also Europe’s biggest market.
For all of EU foreign affairs commissioner Federica Mogherini’s affection for Iran’s ayatollahs, at the end of the day, she is in no position to accept Khamenei’s demands.
Still, Khamenei believes that he can bully the Europeans into submission. To understand why he thinks that is the case, it is worth considering the drama unfolding in Morocco.
The Strait of Gibraltar separates Morocco from the southern tip of Europe. At its narrowest point, the strait is a mere 7.7 nautical miles wide. In 2017, illegal migration to Europe from Morocco and Algeria more than doubled.
According to the Frontex border agency, in 2016, 10,231 migrants entered Europe from North Africa. In 2017, the number rose to 22,900. Forty percent of the migrants were from Algeria and Morocco. The other sixty percent came from other African countries.
As migrants stream across the Strait of Gibraltar to Spain, illegal migration from Libya to Italy is decreasing.
On May 1, in a move that surprised many, the Moroccan government abruptly cut ties with Iran and placed the Iranian ambassador on the first flight out of the country.
In an interview with Fox News, Morocco’s Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita explained the course of events that precipitated the move, and pointed to the wider Iranian threat to Europe and to the U.S.
Bourita explained that last year, Moroccan authorities arrested a Hezbollah operative who was a key figure in the Iranian foreign legion’s financial operations, which involve laundering Hezbollah’s drug profits by exporting used cars from the U.S. to Africa.
Last December, reporter Josh Meyer published an in-depth investigative report in Politicodetailing how the Obama administration had undermined a multiyear Drug Enforcement Agency operation, dubbed Project Cassandra, which had attempted to dry up Hezbollah’s multi-billion dollar financial operations. Those operations involve trafficking cocaine from Latin America to the U.S. and Europe, and laundering the profits through Lebanese financial institutions, which purchase used cars in the U.S. and export them to West Africa. The Obama administration killed Operation Cassandra out of concern that it would jeopardize its efforts to conclude the nuclear deal with Iran.
Bourita told Fox that Hezbollah demanded that Morocco free its operative. Instead, the Moroccan government extradited him to the U.S.
Morocco’s refusal to abide by Iran’s ultimatum gave Hezbollah and Iran a pretext for using a new terror proxy, the Polisario Front, to undermine and threaten Morocco — and through it, Europe.
The Polisario Front was backed by the Soviet Union to undermine Morocco, a U.S. ally. The organization uses terror and guerilla warfare tactics to undermine Morocco’s control over the disputed Western Sahara, which Morocco annexed in 1975 following Spain’s pullout from the area.
Since the end of the Cold War, Algeria, Morocco’s eastern neighbor, has replaced the Soviet Union as Polisario’s primary state sponsor. Algeria has been at the forefront of radical Arab politics for decades. Algiers bankrolls the group and permits it to operate training bases in, and launch operations against Morocco and Western Sahara from, its territory. It also defends the Polisario in international forums.
The Polisario’s headquarters and main military base is in Tindouf, in Western Algeria, directly across the border from both Morocco and Western Sahara.
As Fox News noted, with the end of the Cold War in 1991, the Polisario agreed to a UN-brokered truce. The truce has largely held over the years, but there have been recent signs that it is coming undone.
And Iran is playing a big role in destabilizing it.
According to a report published May 9 by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps directed Hezbollah to provide assistance to the Polisario Front in 2016. In other words, Iran’s efforts to make inroads against Morocco through the Polisario predate Morocco’s arrest and extradition of the Hezbollah operative last year.
Bourita told Fox News that Iran uses Amir Mousavi, the cultural attaché at its embassy in Algiers, as the conduit for its operations with the Polisario Front.
According to the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs report, “a Hezbollah delegation visited the Polisario headquarters in Tindouf.”
Bourita said that the delegation included Hezbollah operatives responsible for its external relations and its military training and logistics. Following the delegation’s visit, Hezbollah began providing advanced military training to Polisario operatives.
In April 2018, Iran and Hezbollah escalated their involvement with the Polisario.
According to Bourita, Morocco received documentation last month showing that Iran had begun providing direct military assistance to the Polisario Front. Its Hezbollah operatives delivered SAM-9 and SAM-11 surface-to-air missiles to the group. 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 that have been the weapon of choice for Middle Eastern terror groups for decades.
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 after Bourita’s interlocutor refused to accept his evidence or to commit to ending its 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.
Speaking to Fox News, Behnam Ben Taleblu from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington noted that Iran “has a history of co-opting local conflicts to make them spiral out of control.”
Bourita, for his part, does not believe that Iran’s efforts to destabilize Morocco are likely to stop with Morocco’s cut-off of diplomatic ties.
“I think it is clear that the interference of Iran in the internal affairs of the Arab and Muslim countries won’t stop in the Middle East and in the Gulf countries,” he explained.
“Morocco is known to be a moderate country, a country that uses soft power in Africa and in the Arab world and I think that is one of the elements which is disturbing Iran.”
The events in Morocco present the U.S. with an array of opportunities to secure a series of gains in northern and western Africa, as well as in Europe and beyond, as it seeks to curb Iranian power.
In relation to North Africa, Morocco is seeking to leverage its actions against Iran to expand its ties with the U.S. Among other things, it is keen to receive a full-throated U.S. endorsement of its 2004 autonomy plan for the Western Sahara. The Bush administration endorsed the plan. But the Obama administration walked away from that endorsement.
Given Polisario’s ties with Iran, the U.S. has an interest in weakening the group. A full-throated U.S. endorsement of Morocco’s autonomy plan will certainly weaken the Polisario and undermine Iran’s efforts in North Africa. Moreover, the U.S. can leverage expanded ties with Rabat to facilitate its counter-terror operations in Africa.
On Wednesday, the State Department designated ISIS in the Greater Sahara (ISIS-GS) a Foreign Terrorist Organization. ISIS-GS is led by former Polisario terrorist Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi. The State Department announcement said, “ISIS-GS is primarily based in Mali and operates along the Mali-Niger border and has claimed responsibility for several attacks under al-Sahrawi’s leadership, including the October 4, 2017 attack on a joint U.S.-Nigerien patrol in the region of Tongo Tongo, Niger, which killed four U.S. soldiers and five Nigerian soldiers.”
Middle Eastern sources note that in recent years, Iran has vastly expanded its operations in West Africa — particularly in Mauritania, which used to have full relations with Israel. Indeed, as a sign of Iran’s rising status, in 2009, it took over a hospital that Israel built in Mauritania in the 1990s. According to those sources, thousands of jihadists, many closely affiliated with Iran, swarm Mauritania today.
Clearly, under the circumstances, not only is securing the stability of Morocco a key U.S. interest, but so is working with Morocco to undermine Iranian operations in neighboring Mauritania and Mali. Morocco can also provide the U.S. with leverage in its dealings with the deeply problematic Algerian government.
That brings us to Europe.
As Khamenei’s ultimatum to the EU indicates, Iran believes that it has the ability to threaten Europe. That cannot be due to Iran’s financial leverage. So t
he subtext of his threat was clearly Iran’s capacity to attack Europe, whether through mass migration caused by the destabilization of the Moroccan government, or through the activation of terror cells already present in Europe. Under the circumstances, protecting the government in Rabat is now a key U.S. – and European – interest.
Given the acute threat that illegal migration through the Strait of Gibraltar poses to European security, the stronger U.S. relations with Morocco become, the more those relations can be used to leverage European support for the administration’s policies towards Iran.
Iran is on the march, and while Europe preens and pines for the Obama administration, outside Europe, endangered nations that have been emboldened by the Trump administration are standing up to Iranian aggression. Morocco’s determination to block Iran from using the Polisario to enter North Africa is a sign that U.S. efforts are working.
Morocco’s actions are important in and of themselves. And strong U.S. support for Morocco, as its works to counter Iran’s efforts to expand into North Africa, can have a multiplier effect on U.S. counter-terror efforts in West Africa, and on Washington’s diplomatic position in Europe.