Iranian Embassy in Algeria accused of promoting sectarianism in North Africa

By Ahmad Majidyar | Fellow and Director of IranObserved Project - The Middle East Institute | Jun 7, 2018
Iranian Embassy in Algeria accused of promoting sectarianism in North Africa

Former and current Algerian officials accuse the Iranian Embassy in Algiers of promoting sectarianism in Algeria and the broader region, according to recent reports. Idah Falahi, former adviser to Algeria’s Ministry of Religious Affairs and Endowments, told Asharq al-Awsat that he had asked the cultural adviser at the Iranian Embassy, Amir Mousavi, to resign from his position. “In order to preserve the public interest, I think it has become necessary for the cultural attaché at the Iranian Embassy to be relieved of his duties and position… The cultural attaché’s movements and actions across Algeria and his extensive contacts with civil society groups, through Facebook and social media, have become a cause for concern and raise a lot of important questions,” he added. According to Asharq al-Awsat, Iran tries to indoctrinate and recruit Algerian Shiites who travel to Iraq on religious visits to the holy city of Karbala. It adds that Algerian Shiites have also increased their contacts with their coreligionists in Tunisia and Morocco.  The report quotes Abdurrahman Saidi, an Algerian parliamentarian, as claiming that efforts are being made to establish a regional Shiite movement called “Maghreb Party”.

Asharq al-Awsat also alleged that Iranian businesses and companies in Algeria engage in promoting Shiism in the predominantly Sunni country. “The Algerian state is aware today that it faces the risk of sectarianism and the transformation of the country from a Sunni monarchy into a state torn between Sunnis, Shiites, Ahmadis and Ibadis,” the pan-Arab daily claimed. “At the same time, it is working hard to maintain the political alliance with Iran, especially since relations between the two countries have developed remarkably since 2011. Algeria has become a strong supporter of Iran's nuclear program and of Tehran's intervention in Syria. It seems that the growing political and economic cooperation between Algeria and Tehran has prompted Algeria to reject some Arab resolutions, especially those that consider Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.”

Comment: It is difficult to corroborate allegations made in the Asharq al-Awsat report. It is also unlikely that Tehran would be able to significantly expand its influence in Algeria through the Shiite community, which makes a tiny percentage of Algeria’s population and a vast majority of them are loyal citizens and do not look at Iran for religious or political inspiration. Lately, however, Iran has tried to expand its influence in North Africa through diplomatic and trade efforts.

But it is not the first time that Algerian officials accuse Tehran of threatening sectarian harmony in the Middle East and North Africa. In an interview with Arab daily al-Madina last year, Muhammad Issa, the Algerian minister of endowment and religious affairs, compared Iran’s role in the region to that of the Islamic State. He also alleged that Tehran even partnered with its enemies at times to further its agenda in the region. Similarly, the head of Algeria’s High Islamic Council, Bou Abdullah Ghulamallah, said in 2016 that “thousands of imported books carry dangerous thoughts that are aimed at convincing the Algerian people that their Islamic religion is wrong.” And when last year Algeria held an International Book Fair, it banned  Iranian publications. The organizer of the event argued that Iranian books "incite sectarianism and violence.”

The growing anti-Iran sentiment in Algeria came to surface in February 2017 when Reza Ameri, Iran’s ambassador to Algeria, announced that President Hassan Rouhani was scheduled to visit the African country in the near future. The news triggered an angry backlash in social media. The hashtag in Arabic “#No to Rouhani’s visit to Algeria” was trending on Twitter in the country. The Iranian president’s trip was postponed.

Allegations against Iran in Algeria come at a time when the governments of several other North African countries have also accused Iran of playing a destabilizing role in the region.

On May 1, The Moroccan government announced that it would cut diplomatic ties with Iran over Tehran’s alleged support to Western Sahara’s separatist movement the Polisario Front. Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita said Rabat would expel the Iranian ambassador and close down Tehran’s embassy. According to Bourita, Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah provide weapons and training to the Polisario Front. Bourita made the announcement after returning from Tehran, where he reportedly informed his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif about Morocco’s decision to cut ties with the Islamic Republic. The top Moroccan diplomat told reporters that Iran used its embassy in Algiers to send arms shipments to Polisario. “Hezbollah sent military officials to Polisario and provided the front with ... weapons and trained them on urban warfare,” Bourita added.

According to al-Quds al-Araby, the Moroccan Interior Ministry last year released a report warning about Iranian activities aimed at promoting Shiite Islam and fueling unrest in the country. The report also noted that at least 40 Iranian-backed Shiite spies were stationed in Dar al-Bayda, 6,000 in Marrakesh, and hundreds more in the capital city of Rabat.