At a time when America extends its hands to the Islamic Republic of Iran, one country in the Arab world seems to be going in the opposite direction. On March 6th, 2009, Morocco announced that it was cutting off diplomatic relations with Iran in the wake of an outcry in the Sunni Muslim world - - over a statement by an Iranian official that questioned (Sunni) Bahrain’s sovereignty. Rabat also criticised Iran for its efforts to spread its Shi’ite brand of Islam in Morocco, a move that Moroccan authorities see as a threat to the North African country’s moderate Sunni religious identity.
The crisis between the two countries sparked when a senior Iranian official, Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, referred to Bahrain as the 14th province of Iran. This statement drew harsh criticism from Moroccan officials. In particular King Mohammad VI wrote a letter of support to Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Issa Al-Khalifa in which he described Iranian position as "abject". This originated a row of diplomatic retaliations that ended up in the severing of diplomatic ties.
Morocco is not the only country under Iranian threat. It is no secret that Iran is facing internal conflicts and a growing popular pressure; it looks as though the Iranian regime is attempting to export its domestic crises to the Arab countries as part of its policy of imposing an Iranian hegemony upon the region. This dangerous trend is particularly visible in Lebanon where the Iranian regime is ruling the country through its proxies, the Hezbollah. Morocco only reacted before it was too late.
Under the circumstances, President Obama’s opening to Iran seems to be ill timed and insufficiently conditioned. It has to be remembered that Iranian presidential elections will take place on June 2009 and that such openings seem to favour only the president in office, Ahmadinejad, who can show the Iranians how strong the regime is since America is begging to come to terms with it. The policy of “embrassons nous” does not seem very fit for the Ayatollah’s regime.
Political analysts point out that whatever inappropriate 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, especially when Bahrain itself and other Arab countries, who had also protested over the Iranian statement, had accepted subsequent clarifications from Iran and had put the matter behind them. Apparently, there was more to it. Morocco’s foreign minister, Taib Fassi Fihri, eventually explained that Iranian officials and their missionaries had been actively proselytising in Morocco using cultural activities as a cover. Moreover, their campaign to spread the Shiite ideology had reached beyond Morocco’s borders to target Moroccan immigrants in Europe. Morocco considers such activities as undermining its religious fundamentals and interfering with its internal affairs. Religion is a highly sensitive issue in Morocco; King Mohamed is the only Islamic leader who jointly holds the title of Amir al Mouminine (Commander of the Faithful) and head of state.
Iran’s support of terrorist groups in the Maghreb region is also part of the problem. The Saudi owned daily Asharq al-Awsat reveals that Moroccan authorities had arrested a terrorist cell which had received training from Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Egyptian daily Al-Ahram points out Iran’s “political interference in Arab affairs [ ] through supporting the Polisario front in order to gain a foothold in Morocco.” Morocco is also involved in fighting Salafist groups belonging to the “Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb” organization, but while Salafist extremism is an individual activity and is masterminded by non-government groups, the Shia expansion is part of the official Iranian institution.
The Moroccan Islamist Al-Tajdid daily writes that the Iranian diplomatic corps in Morocco had begun to actively promote Shi'ism since 2004 through individual outreach, the establishment of cultural centres, and the distribution of pamphlets. The 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 particularly 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. The Al-Quds Al-'Arabi daily cited "American reports" as saying that thousands of Moroccans on both shores of the Mediterranean had embraced Shi'ism.
Morocco reacted quickly to counter Iran’s offensive. On March 16, the Qatari-funded Al-Jazeera Channel reported that the Moroccan Ministry of Interior had ordered its departments across the country to begin monitoring public libraries and bookshops, and to confiscate any books that had to do with Shi'i beliefs, Iran or Lebanese Hezbollah. Local committees have been formed to confront all forms of Shi'i influence in Morocco and have begun a campaign of monitoring anything that has to do with Iran.