There has been a notable growth in ties between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Mauritania, the characteristics of which were made clear through multiple trips, chief among them being the official visit of Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, to Mauritania at the head of a high-level delegation in early February. This was followed by a meeting between Abdollahian and Dah Ould Sidi Ould Amar Taleb, the Mauritanian Minister of Islamic Affairs and Education, in April on the sidelines of his participation in the International Qur’an Exhibition held in Tehran.
In 2019, Tehran laid the groundwork for this thawing of relations with a visit by Iranian Minister of Defense Amir Hatami to Nouakchott and an official invitation from Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi to Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, which was delivered by Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance and special envoy of the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Mohamed Mahdi Ismaili, to Mauritania at the start of the year.
Perhaps this calls for a closer look at Iran’s motivations for this thawing and the factors that helped push relations forward so rapidly.
Rapprochement between Iran and Mauritania did not occur in a vacuum; rather, it was spurred by a number of factors, which we detail below.
- The Relative Deterioration of Morocco-Mauritania Relations: There is apathy in the relations between Rabat and Nouakchott, primarily as a result of Nouakchott’s remarkable alignment against Rabat in the Western Sahara issue and the current polarization in favor of Algeria, in light of the two countries’ common security concerns at the southern border gate. This is evidenced by the visit of Omar Mansour, Interior Minister of the Sahrawi Republic and member of the Polisario Front, to Mauritania at the beginning of October 2022, as well as his statements regarding the use and employment of drones in the context of Algeria’s escalation with the Royal Moroccan Armed Forces. In addition, President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani’s reception of Mohamed Salem Ould Salek, a representative of the Polisario Front, in March 2023 is a sign of that alignment and illustrates the sourness of Morocco-Mauritania relations, a maneuver that Iran has largely been able to use in its favor.
- The Thaw in Gulf-Iran Relations: The geostrategic situation in the Middle East, particularly with regard to the Saudi-Iranian openness and other related variables resulting from this rapprochement, is one of the pillars of the Mauritanian-Iranian openness. In effect, the restoration of diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran in March 2023 lessened Mauritanian embarrassment over increasing coordination with Iran. Since Algeria was President Abdel Majeed Tebboune’s first choice of an Arab country to visit after assuming power, it’s possible that the foundations of this move were inspired by the recent development situation between Saudi Arabia and Algeria.
- The Sahel’s Security Vacuum: With the United States reducing its military presence in the Sahel and the Sahara and with France ending the Barkhane operation and its recent announcement of the withdrawal of its forces from Burkina Faso, the stage is now set for security moves to fill this security vacuum in a way that complements the Russian expansion in that region. On the other hand, Mauritania is seeking regional partners to bolster its security and enhance its role in the region, so the recent withdrawals and redeployment plan created a favorable environment for an Iranian rapprochement with North and West African countries.
When considering Iran’s moves towards Mauritania, it becomes clear that they are motivated by a number of interests and goals related to the space of its regional and Western competitors. This can be explained as follows:
- Reversing NATO Infiltration: The relationship between NATO and Mauritania has improved as a result of the integration of the eastern Mediterranean, North Africa, and the Sahel into NATO’s strategic doctrine. This strengthening of NATO’s partnership with Mauritania was evidenced by its invitation to the NATO summit in June 2022 and the subsequent development of Nouakchott “becoming the alliance’s “sole partner” in the African Sahel region”, according to Javier Colomina, Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs and Security Policy in NATO. In order to achieve regional security and make Mauritania the focal point of NATO field operations in the Sahel region, NATO member states also work to improve the military and armament capabilities of the country. As such, Iran seeks to avoid leaving the field empty in front of NATO countries as a pressure card on the West’s interests in West Africa within the context of its ongoing nuclear negotiations with Tehran.
- Expanding the Network of Allies to Establish a Foothold in the Sahel and Sahara: One of the objectives of the Iranian movement in the Arab North is to bolster the long-standing ties with Algeria and forge new alliances with Mauritania in order to achieve success in that crucial geographic area. Iran’s aspirations go beyond that, as it anticipates maximizing its gains from the state of chaos in the Sahel and the Sahara in order to achieve a similar breakthrough in West Africa as part of the preventative measures that Tehran is taking to control the situation there in light of the challenging complexities in that region, in light of the decline of existing Western military powers, led by France, in the region due to their preoccupation with the Ukraine-Russia conflict. The Iranian foreign minister’s trip to Mali, Niger, Chad, and Burkina Faso before his visit to Mauritania, is demonstrative of this trend and supports the idea that Iran is working to expand its spheres of influence in the area based on its strategic ally, Algeria, in order to play a bigger role in the region’s fragile security situation.
- Balancing Strategic Cooperation between Israel and Morocco: Since the resumption of Israeli-Moroccan relations and the positive changes that followed in the defense, intelligence, military, and economic spheres, there has been a growing Iranian movement in that circle. This allows for the conflict to be moved within that circle, especially since it has become an Iranian-Israeli bank of goals. A change in tactics denotes a reevaluation of the strategic implications of challenging Tel Aviv within the context of the proxy war.
In short, a strategic and functional axis is developing in northern Africa, and its pillars are Iran, Algeria, and most recently Mauritania. Each party pursues its own interests. Tehran and Algeria concur on the inevitability of encircling Morocco and Israel, refusing to vacate the playing field in front of their movements. Transitioning to its new role as a NATO partner country addressing security issues in the Sahel and Sahara regions, Mauritania’s interests are represented by the strengthening of its security and armament capabilities. Iranian relations with the Mauritanian circle, including its adjacent space deep in the Sahel and Sahara, are expected to accelerate, as are those with Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso, and Mali.
On the other hand, these developments will have a relatively minor impact on the level of coordination that currently exists between Nouakchott and Rabat. Given the importance of Mauritania in the Sahara equation, Morocco is eager to deepen its rapprochement with that country in order to avoid complicating its relationship with it and running the risk of entangling Nouakchott in a regional axis with Algeria, Iran, and Russia. This was demonstrated by the “unannounced” visit of Nasser Bourita, Minister of Foreign Affairs, African Cooperation, and Moroccan Expatriates of Morocco, to Mauritania in April.