The "Middle East cold war" is a useful term to explain the increasingly hostile confrontation between Iran, Syria, Qatar, Hizbullah, and Hamas on one side (with Turkey an auxiliary) and Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and most other Arab states on the other (with Israel an auxiliary).
For details of how this conflict has emerged and what it implies, see the important study by Y. Carmon, Y. Yehoshua, A. Savyon, and H. Migron, "An Escalating Regional Cold War." In interesting ways, this new cold war brings to mind the first one of the 1960s, when Gamal Abdel Nasser was disturbing the region; like then, Saudi Arabia is the leader of the status-quo powers, while Egypt has changed sides from being leader of the revolutionaries.
As though to confirm this development, the Moroccan government has just announced that "The Kingdom of Morocco has decided to break its diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran" on the highly unusual grounds that the Iranian diplomatic mission in Rabat tries to spread Shia Islam. On March 6, Morocco's foreign ministry accused the embassy of "intolerable interference in the internal affairs of the kingdom" and of engaging in activities that threaten the religious unity of the country.
The Iranian foreign minister, Monouchehr Mottaki, called the Moroccan action "surprising and questionable." (March 7, 2009)
Mar. 19, 2009 update: "Bahrain supports Morocco's move to sever ties with Iran" reads the article in Gulf News. Bahrain's foreign minister Shaikh Khalid Bin Ahmad Al Khalifa telephoned his Moroccan counterpart to express "Bahrain's official and popular appreciation of Rabat's support for Manama at all levels and times." Bahrain News Agency paraphrased him as offering "Bahrain's solidarity with Morocco and its condemnation of the acts by the Iranian diplomatic mission in Rabat. The foreign minister stressed that the purpose of diplomatic missions is to bridge gaps between nations and people based on mutual respect and non-interference in domestic affairs."
The article also quotes Mohammed Dhareef, an international relations professor in Rabat, estimating that 20,000 Moroccans have recently become Shiite.
Mar. 24, 2009 update: In a typically outstanding report, MEMRI today published "Morocco Cuts Off Diplomatic Relations with Iran, Accuses It of Spreading Shi'ism in the Country." A few extracts:
Although the crisis began as a result of a senior Iranian official, Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, calling Bahrain the 14th province of Iran, "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'."
"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. … 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."
"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'."
"In a March 15 interview with the liberal e-journal www.elaph.com, 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."
"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: … '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'."
Mar. 25, 2009 update: The Moroccan government is cracking down on Shiites in the context of fighting threats to the country's moral and religious values. Human rights groups report that already about a dozen people have been arrested on suspicion of having converted to Shiite Islam. In addition, the authorities closed down the Iraqi school in Rabat, on the basis of a complaint by parents that the school promoted Shiism. The Ministry of Education announced that the school was closed because its pedagogy was "contrary to the law."
Mar. 30, 2009 update: For more on the Bahraini side of the story, see "Tiny Island Surrounded by Tension in the Gulf" in today's New York Times. An excerpt:
The reaction to the Bahrain comments by the Iranian official, Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, was so severe that Iran took the unusual step of publicly apologizing, and sent its foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, to visit several Arab capitals. Mr. Mottaki insisted that Iran respected Bahrain's sovereignty, while Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said the comments were taken out of context and "exploited" by foreign powers eager to drive a wedge between Iran and its neighbors. Though Iran's diplomatic outreach has succeeded in calming tempers, officials, political analysts and diplomats here and around the region said that the reaction exposed simmering, unresolved tensions.
July 31, 2012 update: Although Egyptian-Iranian relations are on the mend, the Egyptian authorities sentenced Mohamed Fahmy
to serve a one-year sentence for insulting the Prophet's companions and spreading the Shia doctrine. The residents of Fahmy's village in Kafr al-Zayat said the Muslim Brotherhood group tried to talk him out of his doctrine by arranging meetings for him with Al-Azhar University professors that usually ended in fights, which prompted the group to warn the young villagers of following his thoughts. The story began a year ago, when local residents kicked Fahmy out of the mosque and filed a complaint against him with the police, accusing him of inciting sectarian strife.
The story, from Al-Masry Al-Youm, also contains this tidbit.
In December, security forces shut down Cairo's Hussein Mosque, apparently fearing that non-Shia citizens would react angrily to Egyptian Shias celebrating Ashura, an annual event that marks the death of the Prophet's grandson Imam Hussein.
Sep. 3, 2014 update: The Sudanese government "ordered the closure of an Iranian culture center in Khartoum on Monday, saying that the center represented an intellectual and social threat to the country." Foreign Minister Ali Karti spoke specifically of "Shi'ite proselytizing."
An undated photograph of the entrance to the Iranian cultural center in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan.