For some time now, Morocco has been warning about the growing influence of Iran and its related groups, such as Hezbollah, in North Africa. Tehran and the Lebanese Shiite organisation are reportedly entering the region through their links with the Polisario Front, as Moroccan officials, such as the ambassador to the United Nations, Omar Hilale, and the Moroccan Foreign Minister himself, Nasser Bourita, have warned. Even European representatives, such as Antonio López Istúriz White MEP, have put the threat posed by Iran in the Maghreb and the sending of Iranian drones to the Polisario on the European agenda.
Now, an investigation carried out by the Israeli channel i24 News highlights the links between the Sahrawi separatist group and Hezbollah. According to the media outlet, the Lebanese organisation is involved in an extensive financial network of the Polisario. Through Hawala, an informal method of transferring money through intermediaries - or halawadars - the Polisario has organised a 'large-scale illegal money laundering network based in Spain', as i24 News notes.
This financial scheme has spread from Tindouf to Europe, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and, of course, Lebanon via Hezbollah. Among European countries, the German daily Die Welt mentions Belgium, France, the United Kingdom and Germany.
The investigation singles out in particular a Lebanese businessman from the Shiite group's financial arm, al-Qard al-Hasan. Reports from Western intelligence agencies point to Ahmed Abderrahman as the network's leader, who reportedly met with the Lebanese businessman in a European country and declared his allegiance to Hezbollah. "They demonstrated their strength in the 2006 war against Israel. They keep their word," he said, according to reports.
Hezbollah and Iran's incursion into North Africa not only destabilises the region, but also poses a threat to Europe. "If the Europeans don't realise this problem today, it will be too late tomorrow," a former intelligence agent from the continent told the Israeli channel.
The destabilisation caused by Iran and its related groups in the region prompted Morocco to sever diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic in 2018. Years earlier, Bourita had already highlighted the ties between Hezbollah and the Polisario following a 2016 visit to Tindouf by a military delegation from the Shiite group.
A year later, in 2017, Moroccan authorities arrested Kassem Mohamed Tajeddine at Casablanca airport on the basis of an international arrest warrant issued by the United States. Tajeddine, who is accused of money laundering and terrorism, is one of Hezbollah's top financial officials in Africa.
According to Bourita, the Lebanese organisation "began to threaten revenge" after Tajeddine's arrest, so it started sending "weapons and military personnel to Tindouf" with the aim of "training Polisario members and preparing hostile operations against Morocco".
For these reasons, the Moroccan minister said that Morocco "suffers from Iranian interference" and accused Iran of "sponsoring separatism and terrorism" in the region. As Iranian analyst and New York University professor Arash Aziz reminds The Independent, Iran has maintained close relations with the Polisario Front since the 1979 revolution, causing tensions with Rabat. Iranian diplomats have tried to defuse these rifts, but over the years this has become "impossible", Aziz notes. Especially after Morocco joined the Abraham Accords and re-established relations with Israel.
Whether through diplomacy or through its related armed groups, such as Hezbollah, Iran has long sought to expand its influence in the Maghreb. To this end, it is seeking to strengthen relations with countries in the region, such as Algeria and Mauritania, which Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahain recently visited. President Ebrahim Raisi also recently invited his Algerian counterpart, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, to Tehran.
In Nouakchott, Mauritanian President Mohammad Ould Al-Ghazwani received the head of Iranian diplomacy to discuss bilateral relations and ways to boost them in various sectors. According to analysts quoted by the British newspaper, Mauritania is high on Iran's list of priorities given its location.
#Iran FM has departed Tehran for Mauritania for an official visit. Hossein Amir-Abdollahian will hold talks with the African country’s president and foreign minister during his trip. pic.twitter.com/Qd9v4gALbx— Iran Daily (@IranDailyWeb) January 31, 2023
In addition to its geostrategic importance, the Maghreb is also the gateway to the Sahel, a region where powers such as Russia are taking advantage of instability and strong anti-French sentiment to consolidate their influence. Tehran could also take advantage of this situation to establish itself in the area.
In fact, the Iranian regime has sent delegations in recent weeks to Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, countries with which Tehran seeks to boost its relations in various areas, such as the economy, politics and health, according to Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Political Affairs Ali Bagheri-Kani. The diplomat also announced that Iran would appoint an ambassador to Ouagadougou and provide scholarships for Burkinabe students in Iranian universities.
Aiming to stoke rejection of the West in the country, Bagheri-Kani criticised Western measures to combat terrorism in the Sahel, going so far as to accuse France of backing terrorist groups, as reported by Asharq Al-Awsat.
"The Revolutionary Guard plays a prominent role in Africa, especially in countries suffering from instability. This paves the way for Iran to penetrate the continent," says Aziz. "Under the leadership of Qassem Soleimani, the Quds Force also expanded its actions in a number of civil wars in sub-Saharan Africa and, most importantly, in the Central African Republic," he adds. However, the Iranian analyst stresses that Iranian forces have been replaced, in part, by the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group.