domingo, 22 de março de 2009

Iran & Western Sahara

As you know, Morocco recently cut diplomatic ties with Iran, presumably to curry favor with Washington and Riyadh by appearing their most faithful ally in the power-struggle with Teheran. However, that doesn’t necessarily play well with ordinary Moroccans, who arguably agree more with Iran’s radical foreign policy than with Rabat’s own pro-US variety. So, to remove attention from the sphere of politics and portray Iran as having attacked those quintessentially Moroccan values of God, Country, King, the foreign policy establishment has gone into overdrive trying to conjure up alternate excuses. Reasons cited for the diplomatic rupture include claims of Iranian Shiite subversion of Islam in Morocco, to make it a religious rather than political dispute, and an alleged Iranian project of anti-Arab expansionism (dovetailing nicely with the wahhabi paranoia prevailing in Riyadh). Less prominently, but still, there is the question of Western Sahara, around the Moroccanity of which there is a strong shared consensus of state and people. Consequently, speculation on Iranian ties to the pro-independence POLISARIO Front and its main backer, Algeria, is being played up in the media.

Below the fold is an example, a translated piece from el-Massa’, which brings up the story of an official Iranian visit to POLISARIO in … 1984. Clearly, this Iranian scheme to undermine Morocco has been going on for some time. (The article also, as you’ll notice, highlights POLISARIO’s disgracefully cruel treatment of its former Moroccan prisoners-of-war.)

Khomeini’s foreign minister visited Tindouf
and insulted Morocco’s state and political parties

Ali Nejab met him in 1984 as a prisoner in the Rabouni internment camp

By: Idriss el-Kenbouri

Is it possible that the Iranians, in their attempts to counter Morocco after diplomatic ties were cut, will provide support to POLISARIO? This is a question often heard these days. Some underline the importance of the matter by pointing to the visit that Ahmadinejad, the president of the Islamic Republic, conducted to Algeria in August 2007. The exclusion of Morocco from that trip had a political content that necessitates analysis, and there is a certain distancing towards Morocco among the Iranian functionaries that truly rule the country. Prime among them is the Guardian Council [?], whose members brought the era of Mohammed Khatami and openness, to its end like a passing summer cloud, to come in its stead the opposite, Ahmadinejad.

Iran’s rivalry with Morocco is old. Ali Nejab is a Moroccan pilot who spent 25 years as prisoner-of-war with POLISARIO in the dark prisons of Tindouf between 1978 and 2003. He tells us that Ali Akbar Velayati, the foreign minister in Khomeini’s era, visited the Tindouf camps in 1984 by invitation of the POLISARIO leadership, in the framework of cooperation between the parties that then existed, in defiance of the late King Hassan II. (I)

The POLISARIO leaders brought the Moroccan POWs to the Iranian top functionary as a sort of proof of their victory over Morocco. Nejab had spent eight months of the year 1973 in military flight training in southern Teheran, as part of the coordination with the Shah’s regime. For this reason, the POLISARIO leaders brought him to Velayati as one of the Moroccans who had been trained in Iran before the revolution, which kindled the interest of the former Iranian foreign minister, who asked to meet him. He was accompanied by el-Idrissi Bilali, a former POLISARIO foreign representative who would later join Morocco.

Nejab tells el-Massa’: “When Velayati stood before me he started, without posing any questions, to insult Moroccan institutions and parties and the Moroccan state generally. I lost my cool and cursed at him. One of the men accompanying him told me that we were brothers in religion, to which I responded that I don’t want to be your brother in religion, I want to be your brother in politics. They understood that I wanted to say to him that they should support our position on the Sahara, and I said that if Khomeini is Islam then I will leave Islam. Velayati immediately cut short the visit. As soon as he left the area close to Rabouni (II), and vanished from sight, the POLISARIO men started beating me with kicks and punches, finally leaving me covered in my own blood.”

As punishment he was put in solitary confinement next to Ali Jouhar, one of the Moroccan officers that had been captured by POLISARIO. The two remained there for eleven months, given a small piece of dry bread and a litre of water every 24 hours. After that, says Nejabi, a POLISARIO leader asked him to write a two-page letter “condemning Hassan II’s treatment of the Moroccans”, which he refused. He was punished with 48 hours of torture – like Sisyphus in Greek mythology – by an order to move, together with Ali Jouhar, a pile of rocks each weighing about 15 kilograms, a distance of 200 meter. This was in Rabouni, where Nejab spent his POW years in the Hamdi Ba Cheikh center, the main prison center of POLISARIO, known also by the name of the “Red Center” for being built of red mud. (III)

Some remarks:

(I) Iran began supporting POLISARIO after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, when the Shah’s regime fell, as part of its break with western-backed Arab states and in line with the new regime’s general support for third world liberation movements. The Shah had had good relations with King Hassan, and lived for some time in Morocco after his downfall, contributing to Iranian ill-will towards Morocco. Iranian support for the Sahrawis was never important, however, essentially some verbal political backing and a formal recognition of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, their government-in-exile. However, as Iranian politics turned more realist over the 1980s, the distant Western Sahara issue became a function of Teheran’s relations with POLISARIO’s main sponsor, Algeria. Support for POLISARIO therefore ended in 1992-1993 when Iran’s relations with Algeria broke down, after the Algerian military quashed an Islamic electoral win and blamed Iran for supporting Islamist rebels. After Algerian-Iranian ties were restored, Iran has been more or less neutral on the conflict, trying to please both Moroccan and Algerian officials by tailoring their message to the audience.

(II) Rabouni is a base camp in the Tindouf province, serving as the main HQ for POLISARIO and housing various government institutions.

(III) The last Moroccan POWs — originally a couple of thousand — were released by POLISARIO in 2005, following increased attention to their case by human rights groups. Numerous people remain “disappeared” in the conflict, however, the vast majority of them Sahrawi civilians abducted by Moroccan police/army forces in the 1970s and 1980s.

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