By Irina Tsukerman
Rabat – Just as Morocco and Tunisia are looking to expand bilateral ties and increase cooperation on regional and international issues (including possibly revitalizing the African Maghreb Union), Iran is attempting to destabilize North Africa. The Islamic Republic’s strategy is to infiltrate each country ideally in cooperation with Sunni extremist movements.
It may also be considering replicating its strategy in West Africa in converting disaffected individuals in poor, marginalized communities in various African countries to Shi’a Islam and offering humanitarian aid in individual cities that the central governments may not be able to reach. Iran is seeking additional partners and customers to offset their lost revenue resulting from sanctions that are about to be reimposed by the United States that may also cause European investors to flee for fear of being affected.
Iran’s Strategy in Africa
Tehran is also trying to gain control of strategic waterways along the African coasts, recruit loyal proxies, and cause problems for the West by eliminating traditional Western allies. Africa has also been an effective place for Iran to buy and sell illicit arms, and now, may increasingly be used to further Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Just as important as the pursuit of its geopolitical agenda, Iran views Africa as a coveted front against Saudi Arabia.
They could use corrupt and weak local governments and appoint militias to cause more difficulties for their regional rival. The evidence of an Iranian presence and their cooperation with Tunisia is largely circumstantial, but is growing. It was part of the agenda of Iran’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohammad Javad Zarif, during his 2017 visit to certain African countries that the Islamic Republic was recruiting. The theme of his two-day visit was that there is no limit to the expansion of Iranian support.
How Iran is Arming Tunisia
Tunisia recently allowed two Iranian agents to enter Libya through its territory to purchase uranium, presumably for the sake of advancing its allegedly suspended nuclear research in light of U.S. withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action, known more commonly as the Iran nuclear deal. Iran has taken steps to purchase additional uranium and to increase its capacity for enriching uranium as a warning of the potential consequences withdrawal of the United States from JCPOA.
The two agents were subsequently assassinated under mysterious circumstances. Soon after, the Tunisian clergy issued a statement condemning Saudi Arabia for their alleged misuse of money earned from the Hajj to sponsor their war efforts in Yemen. Iran has been shown by the UN to be behind the distribution of sophisticated missiles to Yemeni Houthi rebels. Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and other Middle Eastern countries are part of the Arab Coalition that is countering the Iran-backed Houthi movement, which has been largely radicalized as a result of the training from the Lebanese Shia political group, Hizbullah.
Hizbullah has also threatened Morocco’s territorial integrity by supplying the Sahrawi rebel group Polisario with arms and training, echoing Iran’s practice of outreach to separatist groups, rebel movements, and terrorists in various parts of the world.
None of that is coincidental, but is rather part of a political pattern, as is the most recent meeting between an Iranian official and the Tunisian president. Indeed, the relations between the countries have grown so close that Tehran asked Tunisia to mediate in the standoff with Riyadh in late 2017. These developments came only two months after Morocco severed diplomatic relations with Iran for its role in using diplomats in Algeria and Hizbullah to arm and train Polisario.
Indeed, Iran played a role in instigating anti-Gulf sentiment and using Tunisia as a pathway to Libya, where it is also backing a variety of terrorist groups that may have led to the rumored Emirates-backed soft coup attempt in Tunisia, which failed and received little attention. For the UAE, there are other reasons for concern.
Tunisia’s Tensions with UAE Are Helping Iran
Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates have been experiencing rising tensions since at least December 2017, when the UAE received credible security information that several female terrorists with ISIS affiliation and Tunisian passports tried to enter the UAE. The UAE banned all female passengers from Tunisia on incoming flights.
Tunisia, home to several thousand foreign recruits from ISIS and other terrorist groups, retaliated by suspending flights to the UAE. That dispute was resolved, but mutual distrust remained. The UAE’s spat with Tunisia has been ongoing since the 2011 Jasmine Revolution, which the Gulf monarchies viewed as destabilizing and then blamed on Tunis. Tunisia also maintains close relations with Qatar, which likewise has been critical of the circumstances surrounding the Hajj, and contributed to the Gulf State’s dissatisfaction with Tunisia.
Under former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia had been closely affiliated with the UAE, but has since moved away to pursue a more independent foreign policy. Although Tunisia has sustained steady relations with Tehran since 1990, most recently they have grown even closer, a fact that is alarming to both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Meanwhile, Tunisia has apparently sought out Morocco in order anchor itself to the North African region, rather than to the Middle East.
Is Tehran encouraging Tunisia to liaise with Morocco? On the surface, it seems an absurd extrapolation. The neighboring countries have much to gain from sharing best practices about countering extremism, increasing trade and tourism, and strengthening cultural ties.
Indeed, a united Maghreb could be a formidable defense against various adversaries. However, Tunisia may feel snubbed by the economic and trade restrictions placed on it by the European Union, which had first blacklisted the post-revolutionary government as a tax haven, and later listed it as a money-laundering hub. It is becoming increasingly obvious that North Africa is becoming a playground for competing interests.
Turkey is Imitating Tehran in Maghrebi Relations
Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, visited Tunisia in late 2017, also seeking to improve ties. Turkey’s relations with Morocco are less than cordial; not too long ago Morocco shuttered Turkish schools all over the country that were involved in the dissemination of extremist ideas against Morocco’s national interests and a tolerant school of Islam.
Turkey, much like Iran, has been spreading goodwill and ideologies while looking to strengthen their defense ties all over Africa, sometimes jointly with Iran against Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and sometimes against Iran instead.
Turkey may be taking the same route as Tehran—opposing Morocco by allying with adjacent and more amicable states and by exerting their influence until such a point that Morocco has no choice but to give in to Erdogan’s advances.
All of this comes in light of Al Qaeda choosing Tunisia as a place to regroup. Iran was found to have given protection to Al Qaeda after the 9/11 U.S. terrorist attacks.
Similarly, Turkey has been linked to various extremist and terrorist organizations and groups. Just how dedicated is the Tunisian government to eradicating extremism from its borders?
That remains an open question.
Libya is the Crux of the Maghreb Paradox
Meanwhile, Tunisia’s growing ties with Morocco can be viewed both as stemming from genuine self-interest in becoming less dependent on Europe and the Gulf States for trade and political support, or as an attempt to move Morocco away from a truly independent foreign policy and towards an integrated pan-Maghreb approach.
This could also explain the surprising outreach of both Algeria and Tunisia for a joint bid with Morocco for the World Cup in 2030.
Algeria has long been Morocco’s rival for influence in the Sahel since it has been historically close to Russia, has backed Polisario, and has even allowed Iran to use the embassy in Algiers towards facilitating contacts between Hizbullah and Polisario, which ultimately led to Morocco’s break up with Iran.
Algeria is also competing for influence in Libya, a country that Iran is using to mine uranium, arm terrorists, weaken Egypt’s security, and promote arms smuggling and other criminal activities to strengthen its proxies throughout Africa.
Egypt and Russia are growing closer on a number of points related to stabilization in Libya.
These interests, however, can create tensions among the Gulf States. Algeria might be pursuing a joint effort in aligning Libya with Tunisia, Egypt, and possibly Russia; but will such an effort benefit Morocco? Given Algeria’s and Iran’s close relations with Tunisia, the countries are less likely to be interested in a long-term solution that will help Libya than in finding an approach that will benefit their governments, without necessarily ensuring lasting stability. Libya is Iran’s backdoor to North Africa. However, it is not the only door.
Increasingly, it looks as though all but Morocco are now open to the spread of Iranian influence in the region.
Morocco views Libya as a security problem, with the border chief recently reporting a noticeable increased flow of migrants from the country. Great cooperation with Algeria and Tunisia could be helpful to Morocco’s defense of territorial integrity, provided that the countries are indeed looking for a mutually beneficial solution to border incursions from migrants and roaming tribes—formerly armed by Qaddafi—as well as the proliferating jihadist groups.
The crux of the issue for Rabat is the fact that many migrants from Libya cross through Morocco to get to Europe, mainly to Spain and Italy, exacerbating the refugee and migrant crisis in the EU and causing friction between the African Union and Europe.
The recent proposal of the African Union that would allow rescued migrants en route to Europe to be processed through Rabat and other North African points of departure before being resettled was rejected by Morocco. On a more constructive front, a Maghreb delegation held talks in June about joint cooperation with the Libyan government.
One of the concerns for Morocco is the protection of Libyan oil, which is one of chief resources for the country. In such a complex and fluid environment, any increase in cooperation is likely to be viewed as a net positive.
Tunisia is an Opportunity for Morocco, But Could Also Be a Threat
Rabat should view the recent Tunisian overtures with some trepidation, while still agreeing on practical small steps that will not significantly alter the country’s foreign policy or national interests.
While from the Tunisian perspective there is much to be gained from increasing cooperation with Morocco, Rabat’s independent stand and a recent break from Iran could be problems for its own interests, particularly if Tunisia’s amicable relationship with Iran continues to grow. Iran cannot directly sway Rabat’s policies.
However, it can utilize semi-friendly and neighboring countries to start shifting Rabat’s priorities in a way that will benefit the Islamic Republic’s regime and geopolitical ambitions. For instance, joint cooperation with the two other Maghreb states backed by Iran, Tunisia, and Algeria, the latter having been a major problem for Morocco up to this point, could soften its vigilance with regards to other matters.
It can also be used to strengthen Iran’s anti-Saudi and anti-UAE positions throughout the Maghreb. No doubt, the regime is seeking to capitalize on the recent tensions between Morocco and Saudi Arabia, which came in the wake of Morocco’s fallout with Iran.
How Iran Seeks to Exploit Morocco’s Tensions with Saudi Arabia and UAE
The events leading up to the announcement of the winner of the 2026 World Cup bid were fraught with drama related to Saudi Arabia’s backing of the United 2026 bid and what the popular opinion as well as the government of Morocco perceived as an undue geopolitical pressure on Morocco.
As a result, Morocco and Saudi Arabia are experiencing public tensions which raise disturbing questions about the future of the Arab Coalition, and business and cultural ties between the two countries.
The recent spat resulted from Saudi Arabia’s support for the United 2026 World Cup bid, which included open lobbying of Arab and Muslim countries to vote for the United States and against Morocco.
A number of these countries would have normally sided with Morocco. Furthermore, the Saudi officials included a political element to that end, pressuring Morocco to cut its relationship with Qatar and increase its support of the Arab Coalition in Yemen.
Morocco, insulted by what it perceived as a treacherous move and blatant interference with its national sovereignty, bowed out of an Arab Coalition meeting on Yemen, with some even pushing for a complete withdrawal and an overall reevaluation and downgrade in relations with Saudi Arabia.
Morocco, however, has not yet taken any serious steps. Closer relations with other Maghreb countries may be seen as a challenge to Morocco’s relations with the Gulf States, particularly since these countries ultimately supported Morocco’s World Cup bid, despite other political issues and concerns.
Sports, in this instance, are merely expressing ongoing geopolitical considerations. Morocco is seeking to redefine itself as an African, rather than a Middle Eastern, country, in order to shift away from seemingly irrelevant Middle Eastern disputes and concerns and towards a greater integration into the African Union. If the Gulf States succeeded, Morocco’s positioning as a leader in Africa could have been helpful to the pursuit of joint interests in countering Iran’s and Turkey’s influences, as well as the malicious spread of violent jihadist groups ranging from ISIS and Al Qaeda to Boko Haram, Al Shabaab, and Hizbullah.
Morocco Should Be in Control of Its Relationships and Alliances
If the spat is not resolved, pro-Iranian interests in separating Morocco from the Gulf States, infiltrating friendly proxies, and surrounding Morocco can have the opposite effect and could enable Iranian agents in Morocco and beyond.
Tunisian overtures could be an important opportunity for Morocco, but could also be a threat. Rabat should continue to pursue a truly independent course of action, and, rather than acting on impulse in reaction to foolish statements from Saudi and UAE officials, should consider a long-term strategy in fostering better relations with continuous allies, building up cooperation with Tunisia and other North African countries against common threats, and staying vigilant against Iran’s threat of destabilizing the Maghreb and isolating Morocco from its Sunni allies in Africa and the Middle East.
Algeria’s and Tunisia’s offering could end up being nothing more than a ploy from Iran, sent to weaponize Morocco against Iran’s adversaries in the region, Saudi Arabia and UAE, by using carrots as an incentive to turn away from the Middle Eastern sticks in the form of Saudi pressure to cut ties with Qatar and increase forces in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE, however, should also learn from this development.
Morocco is far from isolated; its diplomatic outreach to various African countries is flourishing and its position as a rising power in Africa is solidifying. It is a vital player in African affairs and if these states wish to avoid the influence of Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood, and other threats, they need to take steps to repair their relationship with Morocco before they are excluded from its success and left with nothing but regrets.