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Morocco breaks off with Iran – some background and speculation

March 15, 2009

More than a month ago, seasoned Morocco observers raised an eyebrow or two over Morocco’s decision to break off diplomatic relations with close down its embassy in Venezuela – ostensibly on account of a visit in Tindouf made by Venezuela’s ambassador in Algeria to Mohamed Abdelaziz el Marrakchi, Polisario’s long-time leader and “president” of the “Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic“, a break-away entity recognised by Venezuela… twenty-seven years earlier, in 1982. Outside Morocco, and even among critically minded Moroccans, the move was seen as a way for Morocco to ingratiate itself with its US and Israeli patrons – Venezuela had broken off diplomatic relations with Israel over the war on Gaza just a few days earlier (for a fuller account of these events, see “Maroc/Venezuela: Honni soit qui mal y pense“, “Maroc, Algérie & Vénezuela: let me get this straight…” and “Morocco out of touch with the emerging left-wing Latin America“)…

The turn has now come to Iran. The pretext has been the Bahraïn-Iran border feud. As you may remember, an adviser to Supreme Leader grand ayatollah Ali Khameneï (his official website is quite slick), ayatollah Ali Akbar Ategh al Nouri, allegedly declared, on February 11, that Bahraïn used to be Iran’s fourteenth province. The initial source having been fiercely pro-Saudi and anti-Iranian Asharq al Awsat, some caution is perhaps called for as to the real extent of al Nouri’s declarations – he has predictably claimed to have been misunderstood. That claim may not be totally unfounded: Nouri alleges that he simply compared the Islamic Republic’s record on territorial losses (none so far) to that of the shah régime – under which the British departure from Bahraïn in 1971 didn’t imply its return to Iranian sovereignty (as had been the case in the 18thy century) but rather its independence under a sunni dynasty, the Al Khalifa (Bahrain’s population is two thirds shia):

My purpose in presenting Bahrain issue was restating the history to compare the Islamic Republic era and Qajar and Pahlavi dynasties,” he noted on the sidelines of the international conference on Palestine when asked about the remarks.

I believe the two dynasties of Qajar and Pahlavi gave parts of the country to foreigners out of incompetence, but during 8 years of war and resistance we did not allow even one handful of the country to fall under enemies’ control.”

Be that as it may, the Iranian leadership quickly went into damage control mode – as it drew massive fire from not only the usual sunni suspects but also from Russia and Turkey – with Ahmedinejad personally reassuring Bahrain that Iran had nothing but the most brotherly and friendly feelings towards it. Before the end of February, the feud had apparently petered out, with both countries vowing eternal friendship and brotherhood. All fine then?

Er, not really. As almost all other Arab (and sunni) countries, Morocco lost no time in condemning Iran – rightly so, as few other Arab countries have staked so much on their defense of territorial integrity. Furthermore, Morocco’s close connections with most Gulf States made a stern Moroccan reaction a diplomatic necessity – you may recall that Morocco in 2008 alone received 800 million dollars in public donations from the United Arab Emirates (300 million dollars) and Saudi Arabia (500 million dollars) – i.e. three times more than it received that year from the EU (228 million euros) and more than it is due to receive from the US Millenium Challenge Account over five years (697,5 million dollars).

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’affairesin 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 “abjectas well asabsurd“: «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…

What then? Well, Morocco’s troops being tied down in the Sahara, it resorted to the next best alternative to declaration of war, namely breaking off diplomatic relations. The official communiqué from the MAEC mentions the perceived slights over Iran’s reaction to Morocco’s declaration of support to Bahrain, and ads on, for good measure, an alleged Iranian plot to “convert” Moroccans to Shia islam:

Le Maroc décide de rompre ses relations diplomatiques avec l’Iran

Rabat le : 06/03/2009

Le Royaume du Maroc a décidé la rupture, à partir de ce vendredi, des relations diplomatiques avec la République islamique d’Iran, indique un communiqué du ministère des Affaires étrangères et de la coopération. Le 25 février dernier, le Royaume du Maroc avait rappelé, en consultations pour une semaine, son chargé d’affaires par intérim à Téhéran, rappelle le communiqué. La même source précise que le Maroc avait également demandé des explications aux autorités iraniennes qui ont cru devoir singulariser le Maroc, dans le cadre d’une démarche inamicale, et publier un communiqué comprenant des expressions inacceptables, à la suite de la solidarité exprimée par le Maroc, à l’instar de très nombreux pays, à l’intégrité territoriale et la souveraineté du Royaume de Bahreïn. Le délai d’une semaine ayant expiré, le Royaume n’a reçu aucune explication à ces actes, ajoute le communiqué.

Selon le ministère, cette attitude inadmissible, dirigée contre le seul Maroc, est doublée au demeurant, d’un activisme avéré des autorités de ce pays, et notamment de sa représentation diplomatique à Rabat, visant à altérer les fondamentaux religieux du Royaume, à s’attaquer aux fondements de l’identité ancestrale du peuple marocain et à tenter de menacer l’unicité du culte musulman et le Rite Malékite Sunnite au Maroc, dont est le Garant SM le Roi Mohammed VI, Amir Al Mouminine. Ce type d’actions structurées et soutenues, ajoute le ministère, constituent une ingérence intolérable dans les affaires intérieures du Royaume et sont contraires aux règles et à la déontologie de l’action diplomatique. Pour l’ensemble de ces considérations, conclut le communiqué, le Royaume du Maroc a décidé la rupture, à partir de ce jour, des relations diplomatiques avec la République islamique d’Iran.

 

This beggars belief.

Breaking off diplomatic relations over such a slender slight would seem to me to be a première in diplomatic practice, at least in modern, post-colonial times (the French allegedly invaded Algeria in 1830 over the infamous “fan affair” three years earlier). You do not break off diplomatic relations because you’ve had your chargé d’affaires summoned to the ministry of foreign affairs, even if a critical communiqué is issued at the end of that meeting.

As for an ultimatum not being answered in time – ultimatums are a big no-no in normal diplomatic intercourse.  The latest ultimatums I can remember are those adressed to Iraq in 1991 and 2003 and Afghanistan in 2001 – and they were framed in such a way as to guarantee rejection and war. Even if Morocco’s ultimatum – the Iranians were given one week to respond from the day of Morocco’s chargé d’affaires’ departure from Teheran on February 25 – wasn’t made public, its drafters knew or should have known that Iran would not be submitting to it. None of this makes any sense.

To get an idea of what countries usually break off diplomatic relations over, Egypt and Iran broke off their diplomatic ties in 1979 when then president Sadate hosted the exiled and deposed Shah in spite of the Khomeiny’s objections – and relations have remained brokenon account of Iranian statements hailing Sadate’s assassin. More recently, Bolivia, Venezuela and Mauritania broke off their diplomatic relations with Israel in light of the atrocities committed by the latter in Gaza; Georgia broke off its diplomatic relations with Russia after last summer’s small-scale war between the two countries. Ecuador broke off relations with Colombia after a hot pursuit by Colombian military against Colombian rebels based in Ecuador, and Nicaragua broke off its relations in solidarity with Ecuador. Tiny St Lucia broke off its relations with China as a consequence from establishing relations with Taïwan, as China considers Taïwan a Chinese province. Ethiopia apparently broke off its relations with Qatar over Al Jazeera’s coverage of Ethiopia’s occupation of Somalia. Rwanda cut off its diplomatic ties with France over criminal investigations launched in France against Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame. Chad broke off its relations with Sudan in 2008 over armed incursions in its territory.

Granted, from a legal point of view, every country is free to decide by itself which other countries it wishes to entertain diplomatic relations with – from that point of view, Morocco’s decision is unassailable. Furthermore, the lack of diplomatic relations between two countries does not necessarily imply a situation of enmity between the two – it may simply indicate that the two countries are far away from each other or/and lack bilateral commercial and personal (immigration, tourism) relations – the fact that Morocco has no diplomatic relations with Iceland must probably be interpreted this way…

In the present case, cutting off relations is a markedly hostile gesture on Morocco’s part. The reason usually invoked by Morocco when breaking off or downgrading its diplomatic relations with other countries is unsurprisingly related to its claims to territorial integrity. When Moroccan ambassador to Madrid Omar Azziman was recalled to Rabat in November 2007, it was over Spanish King Juan Carlos’ official visit to the Spanish enclaves in Northern Morocco, Sebta and Mlilya (he returned two months later). When Morocco improbably recalled its ambassador to Dakar – a long-time ally on the Sahara issue – just a few weeks later, it was over a Senegalese opposition politician’s presence at a Polisario meeting. More recently, when Morocco closed its embassy in Venezuela (contrary to what I believed previously, Morocco merely closed its embassy in Caracas, with Morocco’s embassy in Dominica now in charge of defending the Kingdom’s interests in Venezuela).

None of that here: no mention has been made by Morocco of any Iranian action or declaration that could be construed as hostile to Morocco’s territorial integrity. With very good cause: on February 13, less than three weeks before the rupture of diplomatic relations, the Iranian ambassador to Morocco had made very positive statements about his country’s relations to Polisario. In an interview given to the state-run Moroccan news agency MAP, he stated that Iran had no longer any whatsoever relations with the separatist movement for seventeen years (that would be 1992) (2):

Nous n’entretenons aucune relation ou lien avec le ‘polisario’“, a indiqué le diplomate iranien, ajoutant que cette position constante “émane de notre considération pour le peuple et le gouvernement du Royaume chérifien“.

That interview is significant: the MAP usually gives sycophancy a bad name and is not known – to put it mildly – to interview persons hostile or even reserved towards the Moroccan government’s policies. That interview was furthermore given a proeminent place in Saudi-ownedLe Matin du Sahara“, the Palace’s unofficial mouthpiece. What this means is that on February 13, no signs existed that Iran proved a threat to Morocco’s religious monochromy (the unfortunate Jewish exodus has made the sunni demographical dominance nearly all-embracing – and contrary to Tunisia and Algeria, all Moroccan sunni are nominally maliki), as has been alleged by Moroccan officials and mainstream media after the diplomatic rupture. 

Some claims had been made previously by security sources, and given some credence in mainstream media, as to the alleged security threat – never explained fully – of Sunni Moroccans turning Shia – the late King Hassan II had famously spoken of the bloody 1984 riots as a “Zionist-Khomeinist plot“. The 1971 census is the last one where people’s religious affiliation was part of the questionnaire – and then only for Moroccans, whose only choice was between “Jewish” or “Muslim” – and for the latter, no choice of affiliation was fiven. In fact, all Muslim Moroccans are presumed to be Sunni of the maliki school – see for instance article 400 of the Family Code(formerly known as Moudawana):

Article 400For all issues not addressed by a text in the present code, reference may be made to the Malikite School of Jurisprudence and to ijtihad (juridical reasoning) which strive to fulfil and enhance Islamic values, notably justice, equality and amicable social relations.

 

Media sources – citing US government sources (!) –  put the figure of Shia “converts (the term is arguably improper) in Morocco at around three thousand (others speak of several hundred), mostly former students in Iran and admirers of the Iranian Revolution, and lately of Hezbollah (possibly the most popular political movement in Morocco). Their alleged “leader”, or rather spokesperson, is Driss Hani, who has publicly argued that Morocco is Shia country. Of course, the Moroccan government, with its closeness to the USA, Saudi Arabia and Israel, has tried, in isolated cases, to capitalise on the anti-Iranian sentiments of its allies. One recent exemple was the alleged Belliraj terror network– some of its alleged members were initially said to have links with the Hezbollah, and one of its alleged members is a Moroccan Shia, correspondent in Morocco for Hezbollah’s Al Manar TV channel. Slightly loony Iranian opposition sites alleged that Iran was involved in this murky affair. But Interior minister backtracked early on, refuting any attempt to involve either the Hezbollah or Iran in the alleged plot.

Overall then, the reasons publicly advanced to justify Morocco’s dramatic decision make no sense, whether we look at those relating to the diplomatic spat between Morocco and Iran over Bahrain, or at the supposed security threat posed by proselytising Iranian diplomats in Rabat. It is therefore necessary to look beyond the official version.

As with the closure of Morocco’s embassy in Venezuela, many have been tempted to look at Morocco’s Washington and Tel Aviv ties for some guidance. While Morocco will certainly not suffer from either decisions – the Caracas closure or the Teheran break-off – with its Washington and Tel Aviv friends, it is exceedingly improbable that this latest step has been taken on their prompting. Granted, neither Obama nor Netanyahu will cry tears of blood over this sudden downturn in Moroccan-Iranian relations. Times have changed however, and we’re no longer in 2003 nor even 2008: while Israel is still foaming at the mouth against Iran, the White House, while still ambivalent, is no longer warmongering against Iran.

As for Israel – the difference between Netanyahu, Livni, Olmert and Barak is of nuance and degrees here – such a decision certainly reinforces the fanciful narrative of the Sunni/Shia conflict overtaking the Arab/Israeli, but with Israel having been under a caretaker government for months and with Netanyahu not yet in power, it is very unlikely that Israel was the driving force behind Morocco’s decision.

I see two explaining factors standing out: the Saudi/khaleeji (3) link, and possibly a perceived personal slight to Mohammed VI. While Morocco has always had close relations with khaleeji countries – on a personal level as well, since King Fahd and Sheikh Zayed were close to the late Hassan II – these links seem today to be the only relations of substance between Morocco and other Arab states. The evident disinterest of Mohammed VI for the foreign policy ventures which his father reveled in mean that Morocco’s contemporary foreign policy is run exclusively along the lines of personal likes and dislikes.

These are very substantive relations: as mentioned above, in 2008 Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates gave more than the US plans to give over five years, and more than three times more than what the EU has granted Morocco that same year. It is therefore not surprising that Morocco was one of the so-called “moderate Arab countries” (shorthand for US and Israel allies) participating in a meeting with EU and US officials at Sharm el Sheikh last November, expressing their “fear” of Iran and pressing the US to stay firm. Being more Bahraini than Bahrain on Nouri’s declarations fits in quite well with this

Another intriguing detail could also explain the violent Moroccan reaction. In his public message to Bahrain’s ruler, Mohammed VI had used very strong and unusual words for messages of such a dignity – “abject” and “absurd” characterising in his words Nouri’s declarations, seen as representing the Iranian leadership’s views. It was at that stage that Iran summoned Morocco’s chargé d’affaires, and issued a communiqué explicitly criticising the King’s “stance“. This might be the “inappropriate” language later denounced by the Moroccan foreign ministry. And this  perceived personal slight – prompted by the King’s extremely strong language – is probably what carried the day.

See also my previous post, “Le Maroc rompt ses relations diplomatiques avec l’Iran“, on my blog.

(1) Egypt has no diplomatic relations with Iran since many years ago.

(2) Admittedly, Algerian El Moudjahid had published a statement attributed to the Iranian ambassador to Alger on February 6 – one week prior to Ahmadi’s interview with the MAP – in which he maintained that Iran still recognised the Polisario: “A propos du problème du Sahara occidental, M. Abyaneh dira que l’Iran a reconnu la République arabe sahraouie démocratique et reste sur cette position“.

(3) Qatar of course excluded…

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