RABAT, Morocco — Morocco cut off diplomatic relations with Iran on Friday, accusing Tehran in a rare public spat of trying to spread Shia Islam in this Sunni Arab kingdom.
The tensions were compounded by recent Iranian comments toward Sunni-led Bahrain that have raised hackles in the Arab world, Morocco's Foreign Ministry said.
The ministry accused largely Shiite Iran's Embassy in Rabat of trying to "alter the religious fundamentals of the kingdom" and threaten Morocco's religious unity.
The ministry, in a statement, called Iran's actions "intolerable interference in the internal affairs of the kingdom."
Iranian officials could not immediately be reached for comment after Morocco's Friday night announcement.
The Moroccan press has repeatedly accused the Iranian Embassy of proselytism in recent years. The Iranian ambassador denied the charges as recently as last week.
There are officially no Shiite Muslims in this North African kingdom, which is more than 99 percent Sunni, with the remainder of the population Jewish or Christian.
King Mohamed VI is the "commander of the believers" in the country, and the Foreign Ministry's statement equated attacking Moroccan religious unity to challenging the monarch.
Many Arab states have grown frustrated with Iran's hard-line leadership in recent years.
Morocco's move could be "a sign that Arab states are prepared to take a much tougher stand against Iran," Anthony Cordesman, a Middle-East analyst at the Washington-based Center for International and Strategic Studies, said by telephone. Or at least states "not directly threatened by it."
While small Mideast states are trying to soothe their relations with Iran because of the country's traction around the Persian Gulf, Morocco on the Atlantic coast is far from the tensions.
"It's almost as if we're seeing a polarization of the Arab world," Cordesman said.
Moderate states and U.S. allies like Morocco, Egypt or Saudi Arabia are increasingly irked by Iran's hard-line leadership, and worried by the political clout Tehran is gaining through the successes of the Shia or even Sunni groups it backs in Iraq, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.
Morocco's king entertains strong ties with other Arab sovereigns, including Bahrain's sultan, whose legitimacy was recently questioned by Iran.
Morocco offered its "full support for the unity and territorial integrity of the brotherly Kingdom of Bahrain," according to a Foreign Ministry statement last week. "Morocco is astonished by the odd treatment the kingdom has been subject to by Iranian authorities," the ministry said after a prominent Iranian figure made comments last month perceived as a threat to Bahrain's sovereignty.
The Gulf kingdom of Bahrain is ruled by a Sunni elite, but its Shiite majority has close ties to Iran, which holds longtime claims to the island.
Bahrain's foreign minister was in Iran last week trying to ease the tensions.
Morocco's relations with Tehran were previously cut in the early 1980s, shortly after Shiite clerics took power in the Iranian Revolution and Morocco hosted the exiled shah. Iran retaliated by supporting the Polisario independence movement in the Western Sahara, which Morocco annexed in 1975.
Associated Press Writer Hassan Alaoui contributed to this report.