April 1, 2009 Special Dispatch No. 2294

Morocco Cuts Off Diplomatic Relations with Iran, Accuses It of Spreading Shi'ism in the Country

April 1, 2009
Iran, Morocco, North Africa | Special Dispatch No. 2294

On Friday, March 6, 2009, Morocco announced that it was cutting off diplomatic relations with Iran. The decision followed weeks of escalating measures between the two sides. The two countries had been at odds in the past over Morocco's grant of asylum to the Shah after the Islamic Revolution and its support for Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war, but the current rupture is the worst nadir in Moroccan-Iranian relations since these were normalized in 1991: [1]


Undiplomatic Behavior

The crisis between Morocco and Iran began as a secondary development in the recent row between Iran and Bahrain, which was set off when a senior Iranian official, Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, referred to Bahrain as the 14th province of Iran. Morocco, like other Arab League members, issued a statement of support for Bahrain; in a letter to Bahrain, Moroccan King Mohammad VI described the Iranian statements as "abject" and expressed Morocco's support for Bahrain against the Iranian "threats." In response, Iran expressed sharp criticism of Morocco, and called in the Moroccan charge d'affaires in Tehran with a demand for clarifications; according to some reports, he was received by a civil servant from the foreign ministry staff rather than a high-level official, which the Moroccans interpreted as an insult. [2] In response, Morocco called in the Iranian ambassador on February 24 and gave him a week to provide an official response to Morocco's complaints, and on February 25 Morocco recalled its charge d'affaires in Tehran for consultations. When it became clear that no Iranian response was forthcoming, Morocco decided to cut off its diplomatic relations with Iran. [3]

Accusations that Iran is Working to Spread Shi'ism in Morocco; 'Amr Moussa Describes Iranian Meddling as Disturbing

Whatever undiplomatic language may have been used over the Bahrain issue, it is difficult to see why this should have led to a full-blown crisis between Iran and Morocco, when Bahrain itself and other Arab countries accepted subsequent clarifications from Iran and put the matter behind them. Indeed, Morocco's announcement of the severance of diplomatic relations indicated another reason for its move: it added to the Bahrain issue complaints of Iranian attempts to spread Shi'ism in Morocco. It referred to "the proven activism of this country's authorities, and notably its diplomatic representatives in Rabat, aiming to alter the religious foundations of the Kingdom, attack the foundations of the Moroccan people's ancestral identity, and to attempt to undermine the unity of the Muslim religion and the Sunni Maliki rite in Morocco, whose guarantor is His Majesty King Mohammed VI, Commander of the Faithful." [4] (The Maliki school is one of the four schools of Sunni Muslim jurisprudence, and the dominant one in North Africa.)

Moroccan intelligence reports had recently indicated that Iranian diplomats were working to spread Shi'ism in North Africa, and Moroccan security officials shared these warnings with their North African counterparts at a meeting held in the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott. Morocco's Foreign Minister Taieb Fassi-Fihri had also warned of "some activities being carried out in Morocco by the Islamic Republic of Iran that harm the unity of Maliki Sunnism in the Kingdom of Morocco." [5] In a statement to AFP, he added that Morocco is not the only country affected by such Shi'ite proselytism and said that it is occurring in other Islamic countries, in sub-Saharan Africa, and in Europe. [6] An anonymous source described as a high-level official told the Moroccan Islamist Al-Tajdid daily that the Iranian diplomatic corps in Morocco had begun to actively promote Shi'ism in 2004 through individual outreach, the establishment of cultural centers, and the distribution of pamphlets. [7]

Mohammad Darif, a Moroccan professor of political science and an expert on Islamist groups, said that in the past Moroccan Shi'ites had stayed out of the spotlight, but that in recent years have become more open in their activity; Shi'ites tried to establish organizations such as Anwar Al-Muwadda in Tangiers and Al-Liqa' Al-Insani in Oujda, as well as a newspaper, only to have these attempts foiled by the Moroccan government. Another Moroccan professor of political science, Mohammed Lamrani Boukhobza, considered the Shi'ite issue to be the main motive behind the rupture of diplomatic relations. Boukhobza noted that Shi'ism had gained a foothold in particular due to the political appeal of Hizbullah and the Iranian regime. He added that conversion to Shi'ism was especially pronounced among Moroccans living in Europe, and said that an event in Brussels two years ago drew 10,000 Moroccan Shi'ites. (It is unclear whether or not this is a reference to a rally held during the Israel-Hizbullah war in 2006). [8] The Al-Quds Al-'Arabi daily cited "American reports" as saying that thousands of Moroccans on both shores of the Mediterranean have embraced Shi'ism. [9]

In his reaction to Morocco's severing of diplomatic relations with Iran, Secretary-General of the Arab League 'Amr Moussa said that he was "deeply disturbed" by Iran's meddling in Arab affairs, and added that the Arab League would "defend Arab interests from the [Atlantic] Ocean to the [Persian] Gulf." [10]

Publications close to the monarchy echoed the official complaints. On March 10, 2009, Khalil Hachimi Idrissi wrote in the editorial of Aujourd'hui le Maroc that Iran's actions were "an attack on the country's spiritual and religious sovereignty… Shi'ite proselytism is currently riding a wave - or a tsunami - which makes it domineering and arrogant, especially towards Sunni nations. To confront this wave, if this is still possible, is a strictly legitimate act of defense. For other countries, and in particular those in the 'Persian' Gulf, it is already too late. The historic, centuries-long responsibility of Morocco and of the Commander of the Faithful [i.e. the King], in its capacity as a continental pole of peaceful and harmonious Sunnism that shines on all of north-west Africa and beyond, is to reject, with all its spiritual forces, and in the most honest and loyal manner possible, this destabilizing Shi'ite hegemony." [11]

The Iranian Response

In a March 15 interview with the liberal e-journal, the expelled Iranian ambassador to Morocco Vahid Ahmadi denied the accusations that Iran is working to promote Shi'ism, whether in Morocco or anywhere else. He characterized Morocco's accusations as "baseless lies" and said that the Iranian revolution is not something that can be exported as though it were a product. [12]

The official Iranian reaction accused Morocco of being the one to undermine Islamic unity and hinted that it was damaging the Palestinian cause, noting that the decision to sever diplomatic relations came just as Iran was hosting a conference in support of the Gaza Palestinians.

In response, the Moroccan Foreign Ministry said that by raising the Palestinian issue Iran was trying to evade responsibility for what is "a purely bilateral problem." [13] A few days later Moroccan Foreign Minister Taieb Fassi-Fihri added that Morocco does not need lessons from anyone when it comes to defending Islam and Palestine. [14]

More explicit Iranian accusations against the Moroccans came in an article on the website of Al-'Alam TV, an Iranian Arabic-language channel: "The tense sectarian anti-Shi'ite spirit is still the basic operative motor of the political mentality of decision-makers in more than one Arab country, and Morocco is no exception in this respect." The article went on to claim that Morocco even colluded with terrorists in Iraq in the killing of Shi'ites. [15]

Part of the Arab-Iranian Cold War?

While Morocco rejected Iranian accusations that its move was part of a larger Arab strategy, some Arab observers did view the episode in the context of the larger Arab-Iranian cold war. Thus 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed, Director General of Al-Arabiyya TV and former Editor-in-Chief of the Saudi-owned Al-Sharq Al-Awsat daily, wrote: "The distance between Tehran and Rabat is no less than 5,200 kilometers. The capital of Morocco is the farthest Arab point on the map from Iran. Despite this fact, the Moroccan government has begun to complain of Iranian meddling. How is this country of limited means [i.e. Iran] capable of spreading everywhere, no matter how far? Are these just political allegations aimed at defaming the Iranians, or do [the Iranians] have a plan that does not stop before any force and is not bounded by any distance?"

Al-Rashed noted that Morocco did not seem predisposed to a conflict with Iran - for instance, it participated in the emergency summit in Doha during the Gaza war, which was aligned with the Iran-Syria-Qatar axis. [16] He followed up with the question: "What then made an open-minded country known for its protection of intellectual freedoms get so angry as to cut off diplomatic relations in response to religious intellectual activity? The reason was that it was the Iranian diplomatic delegation in Rabat that was involved in what Morocco termed activities contrary to diplomatic norms.

"It would be wrong to accuse the Moroccans of being part of the anti-Iranian political propaganda [campaign] and part of [the attempt to] frighten the Sunnis with [the specter of] Shi'ite expansion, since Morocco has conducted a major campaign against the Sunni extremist Salafi movement [as well]… The difference is that Salafi extremism is the activity of individuals and non-governmental groups, whereas the Shi'ite infiltration is part of the activity of the official Iranian establishment, as the Moroccans emphasize. They had already arrested a Moroccan [terror] cell said to have been trained by Hizbullah in southern Lebanon… [17]

"I think that Iran decided early on to undertake an offensive war against what it considers to be the traditional, official religious establishments in the Arab countries in general, and in particular in the countries it considers to be its political opponents - even if Morocco was not directly a side in this struggle. The Iranian and Iranian-affiliated [religious] groups are active in Europe, Africa, and Australia, and [they bring] a political-religious message that glorifies Iran as the leader of the Islamic world. This message does all it can to find its way into the heart of Arab societies, which Iran has come to consider its strategic depth. This plan is more political than it is religious, and it is an expression of the megalomania one sees in the speeches of the leadership in Tehran..." [18]



[1] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 7, 2009.

[2], March 8, 2009.

[3] Al-Tajdid (Morocco), March 12, 2009.

[4] Aujourd'hui le Maroc (Morocco), March 10, 2009.

[5], March 8, 2009.

[6], March 16, 2009.

[7] Al-Tajdid (Morocco), March 12, 2009.

[8], March 9, 2009.

[9] Al-Quds Al-'Arabi (London), March 11, 2009.

[10] Al-Quds Al-'Arabi (London), March 11, 2009.

[11] Aujourd'hui le Maroc (Morocco), March 10, 2009.

[12], March 15, 2009.

[13], March 12, 2009.

[14] Al-Quds Al-'Arabi (London), March 13, 2009.

[15], March 8, 2009.

[16] See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 492, "An Escalating Regional Cold War - Part I: The 2009 Gaza War," February 2, 2009, An Escalating Regional Cold War – Part I: The 2009 Gaza War.

[17] The reference is to the Belliraj cell. See, February 21, 2008.

[18] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 18, 2009.

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