Exploiting rising tensions in long-festering disputes is a pillar of Iran’s foreign policy, so when signs emerged that Tehran’s proxies were expanding their already extensive West African presence into its backyard, Morocco was quick to draw a red line.
Rabat broke off diplomatic ties with Iran on Tuesday, accusing it of sending missiles to fighters of outlawed, seccessionist Polisario Front. The weapons – which allegedly included truck-mounted anti-aircraft missiles – were smuggled by Hezbollah, Iran's Lebanon-based offshoot, via Iran's embassy in neighbouring Algeria.
"Morocco was left without a choice but to act and cut diplomatic ties and close its embassy in Tehran," said Morocco's Foreign Affairs Minister, Nasser Bourita, who visited Tehran personally to provide his counterpart with a still secret dossier showing how the caches were delivered.
Morocco has governed much of the disputed western Sahara, a strip of desert stretching along the Atlantic coastline, since the mid-1970s. A once-deadly conflict has been frozen following a UN-sponsored ceasefire in 1991. By then Rabat’s secessionist foe the left-wing Polisario Front was pushed behind a desert berm and its leadership now operates from a remote Algerian township Tindouf, where up to 150,000 refugees have lived for decades.
The opening that Iran appears ready to exploit lies in a war of words between Morocco and Algeria. In recent months Morocco has been forced to raise the alarm that Algeria was promoting a Polisario revival.
“Morocco has recently complained, including to the United Nations in April, about what it sees as an escalated Algerian effort to support territorial gains by the Polisario Front in the disputed Western Sahara region, which Morocco views as its sovereign territory,” noted analysts at Stratfor. “By publicly airing its concerns about Algerian involvement with the Polisario Front, Morocco is hoping to accrue more support from allies like the United States, France and the Gulf Cooperation Council states. Because Algeria has friendly relations with Iran, highlighting an Iranian connection in its complaints helps Morocco promote a common cause with states that share its concerns over Iranian actions across the Middle East and North Africa.”
For its part Tehran has responded by calling the allegations false and Hezbollah accused Mr Bourita of fabricating the allegations under "American, Israeli and Saudi pressure."
Mr Bourita also claimed that a military delegation from Hezbollah was spotted meeting with Polisario leaders. He claims the Lebanese-based outfit first began supporting Polisario in 2016.
A Polisario spokesman described Mr Bourita's accusations as a "manoeuvre to refrain from negotiation on the desert, which the United Nations has called for” in its mediation efforts. It is the latest twist in an already deteriorating security situation.
The allegations also throws a spotlight on Hezbollah's wider presence further south in sub-Saharan west Africa. Washington accuses Hezbollah of running lucrative drug smuggling networks through the Lebanese business diaspora, sometimes liaising directly with Colombian cocaine barons. In 2013, a Hezbollah arms cache was found in northern Nigeria, while an illicit Iranian weapons shipment allegedly bound for Gambia was impounded in a Nigerian port in 2010.
Morocco's concerns have drawn regional support. Saudi Arabia led the calls, saying Rabat had "solid evidence", while Anwar Gargash, the UAE's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, warned Iran not to interfere in Morocco's "domestic affairs".
The row has revived tensions between Iran and Morocco, which have seen diplomatic relations severed before. The regime was enraged when the kingdom briefly sheltered Iran's deposed Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi after 1979. Ties again broke down in 2009 over Iran's alleged involvement in stoking a Shiite rebellion in Bahrain, a Moroccan ally. Yet despite concerns over Iran’s attempt to promote Shia interests in Morocco, both sides have made efforts at mending the relationship in recent years.
"There may be an element of seizing the political moment here, but it seems unlikely that the Moroccan government would entirely make something like this up," one Moroccan source with knowledge of the palace's thinking told The National. "The Moroccan intelligence services would not mess around with something as sensitive as this."
Sensitive is an apt word for the Western Sahara conflict, which dates back to when Francoist Spain still controlled parts of the region, but which still arouses bitter feelings on either side.
When Spain pulled out in 1975 as Franco lay on his deathbed, Morocco moved in to claim the region, only to meet fierce resistance from the ethnic Sahrawi people. They had already formed a movement to resist rule from Madrid, and had no wish to replace it with rule by emirs from Rabat.
Styling itself as an anti-colonial resistance movement, the Polisario Front won backing from Cuba, Libya and Morocco's neighbour Algeria, which saw them as a useful foothold on the Atlantic coast. As such, the much bigger Moroccan army found it hard to subdue them, leading to a vicious, near-intractable war that cost at least 20,000 lives.
During the conflict, more than 4,000 Moroccan soldiers were captured, some of whom were not released until 2005, making them the world's longest-serving prisoners of war. The Sahrawis, meanwhile, claim that hundreds of their people are still missing after being arrested during the war by Moroccan secret police.
Today, Morocco controls 90 per cent of what Polisario still calls "The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic", including the main towns on the Atlantic coast. But a 2,700 km sand berm, littered with landmines either side, also divides the area into a Moroccan and Polisario-controlled sections.
The Polisario leadership, meanwhile, remains holed up in Tindouf, the isolated border province in southern Algeria that is also home to around 150,000 Sahrawis in spartan refugee camps. Many were born long after the end of the war. Morocco accuses Polisario of holding the refugees there against their will, pointing out that many find life in the Saharan interior all but unbearable.
Rabat and the Polisario have been unable to ever agree over the terms for a referendum on self-determination.