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    Middle East
     Jan 18, 2013

Iran tries charm-offensive in Cairo
By Richard Javad Heydarian

Facing a potentially explosive sectarian conflict in Syria and battered by a barrage of ever-tightening transatlantic sanctions, Tehran is recalibrating its regional foreign policy and vigorously reaching out to the Arab world, particularly Cairo.

Early this year, Iran dispatched its most articulate and affable diplomat, Foreign Minister Ali-Akbar Salehi, to meet leaders in Egypt, including the increasingly powerful Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi.

Salehi's visit aimed to achieve three key goals: firstly, elevate relations with the Islamist government in Egypt by building on an emerging Iran-Egypt entente after the fall of Hosni Mubarak; secondly, explore actual and potential common grounds on

resolving the ongoing crisis in Syria before it is too late; and lastly, project a post-sectarian Iran by showing more flexibility on Bashar al-Assad's fate and reaching out to Egypt's varying religious leaders.

The decision to send the Massachusetts Institute of Technology-trained Salehi for such a crucial mission wasn't taken in haste. He is not only known for his well-measured statements and composed demeanor, devoid of the provocative bombast common among other Iranian leaders, but is also a flawless Arabic speaker who happens to be among Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's favored political stars ahead of presidential elections to be held on June 14.

The visit underscored the degree to which Iran senses its growing regional isolation against the backdrop of an emerging Turkey-Qatar-Saudi Sunni axis hell-bent on supplanting Assad with an anti-Iranian post-revolutionary government, probably under the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (SMB).

Egypt is extremely crucial to Iran because President Morsi in many ways represents a "third way" in regional politics, despite his roots in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Given Egypt's outsized regional profile, it represents a critical (potential) partner, both economic and strategic, and a bridge to the broader Arab world for Iran.

However, differences over Syria abound and the more radical Salafi elements within the Egyptian government and civil society have tirelessly sought to undermine Salehi's charm-offensive and further fan the flames of anti-Persia propaganda. Meanwhile, Persian Gulf monarchies, namely Qatar and Saudi Arabia, have also aggressively courted Morsi's favor, seeking to dissuade him against any rapprochement with Iran.

The Iran-Egypt entente
While the advent of the 1979 Iranian revolution transformed Iran-Egypt relations into an increasingly overt rivalry, with Cairo supporting Saddam's invasion of Iran in 1980 and toeing the US-Saudi-Israel line in the broader regional efforts to contain a resurgent Tehran, the 2011 Egyptian revolution opened new possibilities for a lasting rapprochement.

What is interesting to note is how prior to the Arab uprisings, there were already calls by many prominent leaders in Egypt and across the Arab world, to explore normalized relations with Iran. During Mubarak's last years, Iran and Egypt began to consider the resumption of direct flights between the two nations, after 32 years of frozen bilateral ties.

Also in 2010, the head of the Arab League then, Amr Moussa, who is among Egypt's most prominent secular opposition figures today, urged Arab states to pay close attention to new geopolitical realities in the Middle East: namely, the rise of non-Arab powers of Turkey and Iran. He touched on the thorny issue of Iran-Arab tensions by stating, "I realize that some are worried about Iran, but that is precisely why we need the dialogue."

After the 2011 revolution, he reiterated his position ahead of his plans to run in the Egyptian presidential elections: "Iran is not the natural enemy of Arabs... We have a lot to gain by peaceful relations - or less tense relations - with Iran." His statements opened up a floodgate of repressed nostalgia for normalized, if not cordial, Egypt-Iran relations dating back to the first half of the 20th century.

Just weeks after the downfall of Mubarak, the newly empowered military junta, the Tantawi-led Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, sent a strong signal of a new dawn in Iran-Egypt relations in particular and Egyptian foreign policy in general by allowing Iranian warships to transit the Suez Canal, provoking uproar in Israel and even Washington. In succeeding months, post-revolutionary Egypt pushed the envelope when Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil El-Arabi stated that Egypt was "turning over a new leaf with all countries, including Iran".

Salehi immediately reciprocated Cairo's gestures of goodwill, expressing his country's appreciation of El-Arabi's comments by expressing his wishes for "expansion in relations". Salehi and El-Erabi also met on the sidelines of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) in Bali, where the OIC expressed its support for improvement of ties between the two Muslim powers.

However, when the Syrian crisis took an increasingly sectarian color - with Sunni powers of Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia pouring all-out operational-diplomatic support to anti-Assad forces - and Egypt headed for its crucial presidential elections in 2012, Iran-Egypt relations took a momentary pause.

When the MB's Morsi took over the Egyptian presidency in June 2012, and gradually dislodged the military junta from power, Iran faced a mixed picture of opportunities and challenges: Morsi comes from an organization which has strong ties with the fiercely anti-Assad SMB, but he also represents a more "moderate" Islamist strand, focused on reviving Egypt's historical prominence in regional affairs and maintaining an independent foreign policy line beyond the dictates of any other regional and international power, namely the US and Israel.

When Morsi - after consolidating domestic power - begun to strike a "political solution first" tone on Syria - in contrast to other Sunni powers openly calling for regime change - and express growing disenchantment with Israel's policies on Palestine, Tehran sniffed a tremendous opportunity for a tactical alliance with Egypt. When Morsi - in contrast to all other major Sunni leaders - agreed to attend the Iran-hosted Non-Aligned Movement Summit in August, Tehran was jubilant.

However, Morsi dished out even more surprises when, during the summit, he openly lashed out at Assad, calling him to step down from power, in the presence of vexed Iranian leaders, including Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But the silver lining to the Morsi visit, in Iran's estimation, was his expressed plans of establishing a new "contact group" on Syria, which would bring in all relevant regional actors, including Iran - a well-known "red line" for Washington, Ankara, and Riyadh.

Yet, despite Morsi's failure to consolidate the contact group, with Turkish leaders constantly snubbing proposed high-level meetings, he created a new opening for Iran, allowing Tehran to explore new channels of communication with Sunni powers and reinforce its "political solution-based" policy on Syria.

Morsi also refused to cave in to pressure by the Sunni powers of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. He cleverly played Qatar and Saudi Arabia against each other when they sought to influence Morsi by generous offers of aid and loan packages to rescue Egypt's flailing economy. Morsi's organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, also refused to join the Arab euphoria over the so-called "Turkish model" under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party, which claims to fuse secular constitutionalism with pragmatic-Islamist parliamentary democracy. The MB even went as far as openly criticizing Erdogan's call, during his 2012 speech in Cairo, for a "secular state". [1]

Bridging sectarian divisions
Crucially, an Iran-Egypt modus vivendi on Syria allows Tehran to project a post-sectarian foreign policy, ameliorating a growing tide of anti-Iranian sentiment across the Arab world. This issue is extremely important to Iran because successive regimes in Tehran throughout the 20th century have sought to overcome the country's inherent "minority status" as the sole "Persian-Shi'ite" nation-state in the region through varying strategies.

While the Pahlavi monarchy joined Turkey and Israel in the so-called "alliance of peripheries", against the backdrop of a pan-Arabist euphoria led by Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Islamic Republic of Iran viewed its growing support for the Palestinian cause and varying resistance movements across the Arab world as a springboard to reach out to the Arab street.

When the Arab uprisings erupted, Iran's initial response was jubilation, the downfall of US' allies in Egypt, Yemen and Tunisia boosted Iran's strategic position, while the unfolding revolution in Bahrain reignited concerns with a Shi'ite-led uprising across the fiercely anti-Iranian Persian Gulf monarchies. But, the rise of Sunni Islamist powers in the post-revolutionary vacuum as well as Assad's slipping hold on power in the Levant represented a huge challenge to Iran.

What the Arab uprisings provided was some change in the strategic dispositions of certain post-revolutionary Arab states, namely Egypt, but Syria has precipitated a new sectarian showdown with Persian-Shi'ite Iran.

Tehran can't afford a confrontation with Sunni powers of Turkey and the Persian Gulf because it is already under a barrage of transatlantic sanctions, undermining its very economy and industrial prowess. Iran needs Turkey for energy trade and diplomatic influence vis-a-vis Western powers, while the Persian Gulf monarchies are a critical node in the increasing displacement of Iran in the global energy markets, due to Western (insurance-provision, financial-access and oil embargo) measures against Tehran.

Iran is also interested in solidifying ties with Egypt, given its importance within the Arab world and huge energy needs. There are already reports of Iran-Morsi cooperation on the intelligence-internal security front [2], while others have pinpointed Cairo's weak response to Iran's alleged shipment of armaments to radical elements in Gaza.

During his recent trip, Salehi met - amid much fanfare - with Egypt's top political and religious leaders leaders, namely the heads of the state, foreign ministry, the Al-Azhar University, and Coptic Church, while entertaining interviews in Arabic by Egypt's state news agency. It was an ambitious effort by Iran to make up for lost time, given three decades of frozen bilateral relations prior to the Egyptian revolution, and build a cross-ideological, broad-based relationship with the Egyptian state and society.

Yet, Salehi's attempts met huge obstacles, if not disappointments. Salehi and Morsi are said to have discussed Syria thoroughly, but Cairo hardly endorsed Iran's "six-point plan" on Syria [3], which favors a political solution to the crisis, withdrawal of arms support to the rebels, an immediate ceasefire, and Assad's stay in power until 2014. Meanwhile, radical, Salafi elements - including Morsi's own assistant for community outreach, Emad Abdel Ghafour - lashed out at Iran and hosted a parallel conference calling for the freedom of Arab population (in the Southern oil-rich Iranian province of Ahwaz) and Sunni citizens within Iran.[4]

Nonetheless, Salehi's main takeaway was to project a softer image of Iran across the region, reiterate Tehran's peaceful vision for Syria, and reinforce the general impression that at least the political moderates in Egypt are willing to normalize ties with Tehran.

1. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood criticizes Erdogan's call for a secular state, Al Arabiya News, September 14, 2011
2. Egypt Reportedly Receives Iranian Intelligence Support, Al Monitor, September 17, 2012.
3. Iran may be reconsidering position on Syria, LA Times, December 28, 2012
4. Egypt, Iran Walk Sectarian Tightrope In Relations, Al Monitor, January 10, 2013

Richard Javad Heydarian is a foreign affairs analyst focusing on Iran and international security. He is the author of the upcoming book The Economics of the Arab Spring: How Globalization Failed the Arab World, Zed Books, 2013. He can be reached at jrheydarian@gmail.com

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