“The Kingdom of Morocco has decided to break its diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran beginning this Friday” read the statement issued by Morocco’s Foreign Ministry on March 6.
It seemed unusual for this North African nation—far removed from the troubles plaguing Gaza and Israel, Iraq and Afghanistan—to sever ties with a distant country like Iran. So why did it do so? According to Rabat, it was over an Iranian official who questioned Bahrain’s “sovereignty,” and the “threat” posed to Morocco’s stability by Tehran’s alleged attempts to spread Shia Islam there.
These apparently unrelated grievances put forth by the Moroccan government are indicative of the anxiety and pressure many Middle Eastern monarchies are increasingly feeling these days (especially in the aftermath of the Gaza war). In order to deflect attention away from the (il)legitimacy of their rule, the old canard of “Persian” interference is once again being employed.
First though, the accusations and motives behind them.
In remarks made in a Feb. 11 speech commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, former parliament speaker and current adviser to Ayatollah Khamenei, Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, reportedly asserted that Bahrain was Iran’s “14th province” until 1970, when the Shah renounced claims on it.
Although Nateq-Nouri later clarified that he was only describing an historical event and was not questioning Bahrain’s sovereignty or independence, it did not sit well with the royal family, the Al-Khalifas, or the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
In a show of support, the region’s fellow unelected kings and dictators quickly jumped to Bahrain’s defense: King Abdullah of Jordan and (King) Hosni Mubarak of Egypt paid visits to Manama while Saudi Arabia wasted no time in condemning Nateq-Nouri’s “hostile and irresponsible comments.” Unsurprisingly, all three countries had recently shunned a two-day conference in Iran titled “Palestine: Manifestation of Resistance, Gaza: Victim of Crime,” which called for lifting the Gaza blockade—a blockade they all either tacitly or overtly support.
Although Tehran’s explanation of Nateq-Nouri’s statements was predictable, it is more important to place his comments in the context of Bahrain’s political situation.
Small island, sizable repression
Bahrain is governed by King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa and the Al-Khalifa family—Sunni Muslims ruling over a population that is overwhelmingly Shia. This religious schism is itself not the issue though. Rather, it is the complete political and economic marginalization of Bahrain’s Shia population and their lack of any meaningful representation within the government which is at the heart of all its problems.
The Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) has long documented the country’s human and civil rights abuses. It recently determined that of the 1,000 employees working for the country’s National Security Apparatus (NSA), over two-thirds are non-Bahraini, while the percentage of Shia Bahraini citizens employed is less than 5 percent (despite the Shia conservatively constituting over two-thirds of the population). They otherwise occupy low-level jobs or act as paid informants. The paramilitary Special Security Forces (SSF) acting under the supervision of the NSA, number 20,000—90 percent of whom are non-Bahraini, and without a single Bahraini Shia member.
By Royal Decree, the NSA and SSF may arrest and interrogate anyone they wish, are immune from prosecution, and are not under the oversight of any monitoring body. According to the BCHR, they are responsible for arresting hundreds of activists, torturing citizens, and running smear campaigns that result in the detention and imprisonment of anyone suspected of opposing Al-Khalifa family rule.
The Shia are also not found in any important governmental ministry and are poorly represented in the public sector.
In January, thousands of them peacefully protested against the kingdom’s citizenship laws which in effect, are the Arab equivalent of Israel’s infamous Citizenship Law. They permit Sunnis from other parts of the Muslim world to become expedited, naturalized citizens of Bahrain for the sole purpose of manipulating the confessional makeup and altering the sectarian balance of the country in favor of the Al-Khalifa’s natural constituency. The Shia population, and their demands, are thereby diluted.
“Cultural infiltration” in Morocco?
As for the second charge, Morocco’s foreign minister accused Iran of “cultural infiltration” and attempts to “implant the Shiite Muslim ideology” in the country. Specifics were scant other than allegations of “Shiite activism” by Iran’s diplomatic representatives.
But what underlies Morocco’s and other Arab countries’ paranoia of Shia Muslims?
The answer can be found in both modern and ancient Islamic history. It was Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979 which deposed fellow monarch, and many would say tyrant, Shah Reza Pahlavi. It is therefore perceived that Shia Muslims (always conflated with Iranians), have an inherent tendency to overthrow ‘the established order.’
Indeed, the history of this minority sect is filled with stories of defiance against caliphs and rulers perceived to be unjust. In no small part, this led to their historical persecution by the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties.
But what these leaders fail to appreciate is that Arab Shia citizens are loyal to their own country, not Iran. Without being accorded basic civil and human rights though, and marginalized politically and socioeconomically, there is no way to demonstrate this. As a result, when Iran—a Shia Muslim nation—speaks up for their co-religionists, an artificial Arab-Iranian polemic is created.
The Kingdom of Morocco cut diplomatic ties with Iran because a kindred monarchy that subjugates and controls its citizens through a family-run security apparatus was challenged, both from within and abroad, and this was deemed unacceptable.
Iran did not question the sovereignty of Bahrain but did implicitly question the legitimacy of the Al-Khalifa’s to govern based on policies that exclude the participation of a majority of its citizens. As Egypt’s dictator Hosni Mubarak has done, King Mohammad VI of Morocco—the self-appointed “Commander of the Faithful”— raised the Shia bogeyman for his own domestic purposes.
Israel’s war on Gaza, and the complicity of the Arab world’s U.S.-backed monarchs and dictators in it, exposed the cavernous divide between them and the people they rule. To divert attention away from the ill-effects their own subservience has wrought, they believe redirecting this hostile energy onto Iran, fomenting historical Arab-Persian animosity, hyping sectarianism and scapegoating Shia Muslims will afford them some breathing room. Similar tactics are also evident in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
But the walls are fast closing in.
All the above actions are the hallmarks of evaporating authority. By undertaking such desperate measures, these Mideast leaders are telling us the days of monarchy and perpetual dictatorship are coming to an end.