The US State Department on Wednesday denied reports that emerged last week saying the Biden administration had quietly confirmed to Morocco its support for recognition of Morocco’s claims of sovereignty over Western Sahara.
On Friday Axios reported, citing “two sources familiar with the call,” that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had told Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita that the Biden administration wasn’t looking at this time to change the policy set down by former US President Donald Trump in December of last year. However, a readout of the call published later that day failed to mention Western Sahara at all.
A State Department spokesperson sought to correct the report on Tuesday by speaking with Alhurra, a US-based Arabic-language television channel funded by the US Agency for Global Media, the same federal agency that operates other US state media outlets like Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
"No such decision has been taken,” the anonymous spokesperson said Tuesday, according to Middle East Monitor. “We are currently conducting private talks with the disputing parties on the best way to push the file forward and we have nothing further to announce.”
Trump’s December decision reversed decades of US policy, which has long backed the United Nations-driven peace process in Western Sahara that includes holding a promised referendum on independence from Morocco. In conjunction with Trump’s move, the Moroccan monarchy extended official diplomatic recognition to Israel, the last of several Arab nations to do so in 2020 at US urging.
Biden has faced pressure from both sides since taking office, with Bourita urging him not to shift policy and former US diplomats, as well as current lawmakers urging him to reverse the decision.
Rabat seized Western Sahara in 1975 after the Spanish colonial administration withdrew from the territory, but they faced a 16-year insurgency led by the Saharawi Polisario Front, a liberation front fighting for a Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic it declared in the territory in 1976.
By 1991, a peace deal had been reached that would allow for Saharawis to vote on independence from Morocco, but over the 20 years that followed, no vote has taken place, even as more and more Moroccan settlers moved into the country’s valuable coastal regions. In November of last year, that peace deal fractured after Moroccan forces dispersed a Saharawi protest camp at a southern border crossing into Mauritania.
Sputnik reported last week that prior to Blinken’s call, Bourita had already planned on attending an event on Thursday hosted by the American Israeli Political Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the largest pro-Israel lobby in the United States, in the interest of shoring up relations with both Jerusalem and Washington. His decision, in turn, followed an ambiguous action at the United Nations last month that failed to state an explicit position on Western Sahara and seemed to affirm support for the UN-led peace mission there, MINURSO.
Rabat was also reportedly further worried by the fact that Blinken spoke with Algeria before speaking with them, which might have been taken as a slight.
According to Morocco World News, Blinken discussed regional affairs with Algerian foreign minister Sabri Boukadoum on Thursday before speaking to Bourita on Friday. Boukadoum reported afterward on his Twitter that the two had “discussed ways to revive and strengthen the strategic partnership between Algeria and the United States of America in various fields, as well as exchanging views on regional issues of common interest, especially the situations in Western Sahara, Libya and Mali.”
في اتصال هاتفي مع كاتب الدولة الأمريكي، توني بلينكن، تم التطرق إلى سبل احياء وتقوية الشراكة الاستراتيجية بين الجزائر والولايات المتحدة الاميركية في مختلف المجالات وكذا تبادل وجهات النظر حول القضايا الاقليمية ذات الاهتمام المشترك خاصة الأوضاع في الصحراء الغربية، ليبيا ومالي. pic.twitter.com/QGJHu69dL5— Sabri Boukadoum | صبري بوقدوم (@Boukadoum_S) April 29, 2021
However, like the readout on the call with Bourita, the State Department’s announcement of the call with Boukadoum did not mention Western Sahara at all. Algiers has long supported the Saharawi cause, providing shelter for hundreds of thousands of Saharawi refugees and funneling obsolete military equipment to Polisario, and it has been a perennial regional rival to Morocco since independence in 1962.