Early last week, it was reported that Rabat had chosen to sever ties with Tehran, after a diplomatic spat between Bahrain and Iran over a statement by an Iranian official questioning Bahrain's sovereignty. Additionally, Morocco expressed resentment at Iran's alleged attempts to influence Moroccans in Europe toward Shi'a Islam.
Ibn Kafka, who also covered the story on his French-language blog, wrote a piece in the new Maghreb affairs blog Maghreb Politics Review, assessing the situation and offering this excellent timeline of events:
The turns and twists of the Morocco-Iran spat deserve a proper timeline. Here are the main events, as far as I have been able to track them:
February 11: Nouri makes his comments on Bahrain, causing widespread condemnation – Morocco joins the chorus.
February 20: Iran summons Morocco’s chargé d’affaires in Teheran, Mohamed Darif, over “the stances taken by the Moroccan king“. In a message to his Bahraini counterpart, Mohammed VI had described Nouri’s declarations as “abject” as well as “absurd“: «Ces déclarations abjectes à l’endroit d’un pays arabe frère et membre actif dans son environnement régional et au sein de la communauté internationale ont suscité notre fort étonnement et notre profonde inquiétude (…) Nous considérons de même que ces déclarations absurdes sont en contradiction flagrante avec les principes et les règles du droit international, ainsi qu’avec les valeurs de coexistence et de bon voisinage auxquelles incite Notre religion islamique tolérante». The Moroccan chargé d’affaires allegedly took a low profile during that meeting, replying that “Morocco is interested in expanding relations with Iran, which he called a regional power with an ancient civilization“. A communiqué by the official Iranian press agency IRNA is allegedly published (I haven’t found it though), evoking that call-up and criticising Morocco for its reaction.
February 22: Morocco’s foreign minister, Taïeb Fassi Fihri, travels to Bahrain to convey a personal message from King Mohammed VI to King Hamad Ibn Aissa Al Khalifa, a gesture widely publicised in Moroccan media as well as on the Moroccan foreign ministry’s website.
February 23: Taïeb Fassi Fihri meets with Bahraini prime minister Sheikh Khalifa Ben Salman Al-Khalifa.
February 25: On his return from Bahrain, Taïeb Fassi Fihri summons Iranian ambassador to Morocco, Vahid Ahmadi, to convey him Morocco’s displeasure at Iran’s call-up of Morocco’s chargé d’affaires and strong rejection of the wording of the IRNA communiqué mentioned earlier. Morocco’s chargé d’affaires is called back for consultations in Rabat for one week on the same day.
February 26: Taïeb Fassi Fihri reiterates Morocco’s “astonishment” at being allegedly singled out by Iran over its support for Bahrain’s territorial integrity – Morocco’s chargé d’affaires would apparently have been the only foreign head of mission to have been summoned to the Iranian ministry of foreign affairsover the issue, despite the many other Arab and non-Arab countries taking a similar stance – at least if we are to believe Morocco’s MAEC.
March 6: Morocco decides to break off diplomatic relations with Iran – if the diplomatic spat over the Bahrain affair is still mentioned, the sectarian aspect is given much larger proeminence – Iran’s embassy is accused of having meddled in internal Moroccan affairs by proselytising – claims that had never been raised previously on an official level. The spat has continued thereafter, with Iran chiding Morocco over its decision, and Morocco asserting its sovereign right to break off diplomatic relations with whomever it wants.
Some remarks are in order: while Iran initiated this diplomatic tit-for-tat, Morocco upped the ante considerably by recalling its chargé d’affaires – a step no other Arab country (1) has taken over this dispute, not even Bahrain. This is quite an escalade in diplomatic terms. It may be recalled that Morocco undertook the same step – recalling its ambassador – when Spain’s Juan Carlos made an official visit in November 2007 to the Spanish enclaves in Morocco, Sebta and Mlilia, over which Morocco claims sovereignty. Bahrain’s territorial integrity – if one accepts that Nouri’s statements could reasonably be perceived as a threat – would thus appear as equally worthy of diplomatic action as Sebta and Mlilia, which might come as news to Morocco’s public – not that anyone bothered to consult them over this issue…
In an excellent post, Adilski of A Moro in America asks the tough question “Was Rabat's decision justified?” The blogger muses:
Because of Iran's rising popularity in the Arab and Islamic world for its support to Hamas and Hizballah against Israel, any hostile gesture from a Muslim country towards it would be unpopular and unacceptable; and so was Morocco when it decided to cut ties.
What is more surprising and suspicious to many people is that the arguments being used by the Moroccan diplomacy are too weak at worst and contradictory at best. While Mr. Fassi Fihri, the Moroccan FM, said the decision was prompted by Iran's singling out of Morocco regarding the Bahrain comments, spokesman of the Moroccan government, Mr Nasiri, claimed Iran has been engaging in a campaign to spread Shi'ism among Moroccans in Europe and inside the kingdom itself.
These dissonant official statements not only reveal the weakness of Rabat's arguments, but also reveal the defensive posture of the Moroccan diplomacy after realizing it was indeed an unpopular decision both domestically and regionally.
While the Bahrain story does not hold much ground in justifying the decision, there are other possible explanations that make more sense, though they are not disclosed officially, for obvious reasons.
Morocco maintains good relations with two U.S. allies in the Middle East, namely, Israel and Saudi Arabia, which also happened to be sworn enemies of Iran for ideological and political reasons. Those two nations are more likely to be behind the Moroccan-Iranian diplomatic crisis than any other factor.