Morocco renews Iran ties—With Saudi Arabia’s permission

World Politics Review– Diplomatic ties between Iran and Morocco were fully restored earlier this month when Morocco’s ambassador to Iran presented his credentials to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Morocco’s appointment of an ambassador to Iran represents a new era in bilateral relations after Rabat severed ties in 2009 over what it called Tehran’s interference in Morocco’s internal affairs. In an email interview, Ann Wainscott, an assistant professor at St. Louis University, discusses Morocco’s ties with Iran.

WPR: Why did Iran and Morocco decide to restore ties, and what areas of potential cooperation are on the agenda?

Ann Wainscott: Morocco and Iran officially resumed diplomatic relations on Dec. 31, 2016 when Ambassador Hassan Hami presented his credentials in Tehran. The event was the culmination of a gradual re-establishment of relations initiated by Iran two years earlier, when it named a new ambassador to Morocco. The re-establishment of ties followed a seven-year period of tension. In 2009, Morocco broke off diplomatic relations after accusing Iran of “intolerable interference in the internal affairs of the kingdom.” In particular, Morocco expressed concern that Iran was attempting to influence the country’s religious field, which Moroccan authorities have tightly regulated since the 2003 Casablanca bombings. Rabat, which has close ties to the Gulf monarchies, also claimed that it wanted to express solidarity with Bahrain after an Iranian official stated that the island kingdom was a province of Iran. Morocco does not tolerate statements that violate the territorial sovereignty of allies, in an effort to shore up support for its own territorial dispute over the Western Sahara.

The change in administration in Iran is the primary reason that the two countries resumed diplomatic relations. President Hassan Rouhani, who assumed office in 2013, has sought to strengthen ties strained by his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Iran also has expanding economic and political interests in the country, especially in the automotive sector. Iran sees Morocco as an ideal entryway into the African and Latin American markets, with the hope that increased trade with these regions may result in support for Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Areas for potential cooperation include tourism, agriculture, phosphates, automobiles, fisheries and energy.

WPR: How does Morocco’s relationship with Saudi Arabia affect its ties with Iran?

Wainscott: Morocco’s relationship with Iran is constrained by its relationship with Saudi Arabia. Reports have suggested that the real reason for the break in relations in 2009 was that Saudi Arabia requested that Morocco sever ties with Riyadh’s longtime foe. While these reports have not been confirmed, they point to the perceived Saudi influence on the Moroccan government—influence that has serious tangible benefits. Since the beginning of the Arab uprisings, Saudi Arabia has greatly increased its financial assistance to North African states, Morocco in particular. During the uprisings, Morocco was invited to join the Gulf Cooperation Council in the hopes of protecting the monarchy from the protest movements; in 2011, the GCC promised Morocco $5 billion in aid and investment. More recently, the GCC has promised to invest $120 billion in Morocco by 2024.

Given these incentives, in any conflict where Morocco is forced to pick sides between Iran and Saudi Arabia, it will pick Saudi Arabia. Last year, for example, Morocco repeatedly defended Saudi Arabia’s fitness to host the hajj pilgrimage after it was questioned by Iran, which has blamed Saudi authorities for the deadly stampede at the hajj in 2015 that killed more than 400 Iranians. Iran boycotted the hajj last year.

WPR: How stable is the bilateral relationship, and how committed are both Morocco and Iran to protecting and expanding ties, both politically and economically?

Wainscott: The relationship remains fragile. Morocco’s renewed diplomatic relations with Iran are reportedly dependent on Iran refraining from proselytizing Shiite Islam in the kingdom. It is unlikely that Morocco would tolerate any breach, real or perceived, of this arrangement. Nevertheless, both countries appear committed to protecting and expanding ties. Iran’s commitment is demonstrated by the fact that it has largely overlooked Morocco’s participation in the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen fighting Houthi rebels aligned with Tehran. Iran may be willing to ignore Morocco’s participation, provided it remains relatively minor, in order to achieve some of its aforementioned economic goals. Likewise, Iran is one of the largest consumers of Moroccan phosphate, a key export for the country. Morocco therefore has incentives to maintain the relationship, though it is unlikely to allow ties to strengthen to the point that they would make Saudi Arabia uncomfortable. For its part, Saudi Arabia appears willing to cooperate; earlier this month it extended an invitation to Iran to begin negotiations for Iranian pilgrims to attend this year’s hajj.