Stronger Egypt-Iran rapproachement could be a message to third parties
Mai Shams El-Din Egypt Independent Mon, 18/02/2013 - 16:04
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s historic visit to Cairo for a summit
of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), as well as President
Mohamed Morsy’s red carpet reception, has led to mounting speculation across
the region that a possible rapprochement is in the making after a
Morsy’s warm reception reflected a shift in attitude from his visit to Iran
during the summit of the 120-member Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran in
August, observers say. Then, the newly elected Muslim Brotherhood president
slammed the Syrian regime — Iran’s biggest Arab ally — calling it
“oppressive,” and gave a special salute to the companions of the Prophet
Mohamed, which was considered an insult to Iran’s Shia tradition.
But the political situation in Egypt is also shifting, with dwindling
support for the first elected president, not only from traditional secular
opposition groups but also from his major political allies, the
ultraconservative Salafi movement.
Ahmadinejad’s visit, the first by an Iranian president since the Islamic
Revolution in 1979, was panned by Salafi leaders and supporters, whose
reception of Ahmadinejad was not quite so cordial.
With both leaders facing mounting pressure at home and abroad, detractors of
Morsy and his Iranian counterpart have been questioning the motivations
behind the historic visit. Many agree the visit sends a strong message, at
least to international powers.
Ahmadinejad’s visit comes as his government faces significant turbulence at
home: Economic sanctions imposed by the US and its Western allies are
further isolating Iran economically and politically.
“The main goal for Ahmadinejad and the Iranian government at large is to
seek some sort of detente with Egypt. Iran is isolated diplomatically and
economically, and could only benefit from a meaningful rapprochement with
Egypt,” Bernd Kaussler, researcher in Iranian foreign policy and professor
of political science at James Madison University, tells Egypt Independent.
Bessma Momani, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, believes the
visit rather highlights symbolic overtones for both leaders.
“This was not a visit about Shia-Sunni issues, but rather a geopolitical
calculation to visit a very important Arab country that is at a crossroads
for political change. Ahmadinejad wants to convey regional leadership and to
claim success in opening and warming relations with Egypt. He also benefits
from having an Islamist leader, like Morsy, greet him warmly,” she argues,
referring to a possible plan by the Iranian president to cement political
support for his regime as the 2013 presidential elections loom.
“With political tensions in Iran, Ahmadinejad wants to bolster his image as
a leader and a diplomat. This helps his allies and supporters who are
contending for the 2013 elections,” she says.
For Morsy, Momani believes, the symbolism may help him as political support
for his Islamist regime dwindles. “With so much trouble at home, Morsy may
have wanted to look like a global statesman by welcoming Ahmadinejad. He may
also want to signal his independence from Western political interests, as we’ve
seen through his warming relations with the Hamas’ leadership,” she adds.
But it was not all pleasantries between the two countries. The Iranian
leader was attacked twice during his trip to Cairo. And Al-Azhar, the Sunni
world’s most prestigious seat of learning, directed a sharp, biting
statement at Ahmadinejad, who later appeared waving the victory sign in a
joint press conference after his visit there.
During a news conference, an Al-Azhar spokesperson gave the Iranian leader a
public scolding, listing five demands, which included the protection of
Sunni and Khuzestani minorities in Iran, ending political interference in
Bahrain, ending its support of the Syrian regime, and ending Iran’s
ostensible mission to spread Shia Islam across the region.
Testy comments aside, relations between Egypt and Iran have largely improved
since Morsy’s election in June.
Vexing the Gulf
As Tehran continues to flex its regional muscles, much to Washington’s
annoyance, Cairo appears to have begun imparting messages of its own,
marking out a foreign policy route that could equally distress Gulf
Mustafa El Labbad, director of Al-Sharq Center for Regional and Strategic
Studies, tells Egypt Independent that recent visits by Iranian officials
such as the unconfirmed visit by the leader of Iran’s revolutionary guards
Qassim Solaimany, the visit of Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi and the
latest visit of Ahmadinejad are not coincidental.
“Morsy sends a clear message to the Gulf countries and especially the
[United Arab Emirates] that he can easily create alternative strategic
relationship,” Labbad says, adding that such “political vexing” is a
response to the failure of the visit by Morsy adviser Essam al-Haddad to
resolve the issue of 11 Egyptian detainees in the UAE. The latter are said
to have strong connections to the Brotherhood’s international organization,
in the midst of growing enmity between Egypt and the UAE..
Labbad argues that Morsy thus does not aim at real and deep rapprochement
with Iran, but rather a cosmetic patch up to send signals to the Gulf. “The
context here is very dangerous, because the revived relationship with Iran
should be an addition to Egypt’s foreign policy, not a replacement of its
relationship with the Gulf countries,” he adds.
Momani doubts such an inclination by Morsy, as Egypt cannot afford the cost
of such a policy. “This strategy can backfire and upset Gulf donors and
benefactors. Iran can never supply the kinds of funds that are provided by
the Gulf,” she says.
As Iran and Egypt seek to carve out a new role in the changing political
landscape of the region, the US and certain Gulf monarchies are keen that
the two powers maintain a certain distance.
Analysts, however, believe that Washington understands that Ahmadinejad’s
trip is more symbolic than game-changing, and should pose no serious threat
to its close ties with Cairo, which were left unfazed by the Brotherhood’s
rise to political power.
“Many Arab countries that enjoy good relationships with Iran actually enjoy
the same level of warm relationship with the US administration. Qatar is a
strong example,” Labbad says.
“The US also knows that the ceiling of the rapprochement between Egypt and
Iran will be limited. Future relations will show an intermediary level that
is going to end the decades-long deadlock, but will be, at the same time,
below a full political alliance,” he adds.
Kaussler agrees that the US will not take the visit very seriously. “The US
has maintained strong military-to-military relations with Egypt, and will
continue to do so as long as the military apparatus dominates politics in
Cairo. US foreign policy priorities will be to manage Egypt’s democratic
transition without losing influence,” he argues.
Resolving the Syrian question
The two countries, however, remain at odds over several issues, including
Syria, which was suspended from the OIC at its last summit despite Iranian
After brokering a successful cease-fire agreement between Gaza and Israel,
which garnered sweeping domestic support, Morsy is hoping to broker a
similar deal for the Syrian people, whom he urged to unite under one
opposition bloc in their fight for democracy.
Iran seems to be the only interlocutor in this regard.Kaussler argues that
Morsy would like to see a Brotherhood-dominated Syrian government after
President Bashar al-Assad. “Iran is still supporting their strongest Arab
ally but — no doubt — working on Plan B,” he says.
“I think neither Morsy nor Ahmadinejad enjoy the authority to have complete
control or knowledge of their respective government’s grand strategies for
Syria. What seems certain is that a realist agenda determines foreign policy
on both sides. Both seek a Syrian government they can control or at least
influence,” he adds.