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    Middle East
     Jan 30, 2013

Egypt's (missed) chance in nuclear diplomacy
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

NEW YORK - Egypt is about to miss a golden opportunity to enhance its stature in global diplomacy, which has presented itself in the form of Iran's suggestion of Cairo as the venue for the next round of multilateral nuclear negotiations. Despite unconfirmed reports that Cairo has turned a cold shoulder to this idea, it is still not too late for the embattled government of Mohammed Morsi to embrace it, thus gaining diplomatic and political capital.

Although the European Union has reacted negatively to Tehran's suggestion, depicting it as a "delay tactic", Cairo can still be the host city for the next round between Iran and the "5+1" nations (the UN Security Council's permanent five members plus Germany) only if Morsi, who is grappling with political tensions at

home, nods positively.

The prospect of Cairo turning for a few days into a focus of global attention with respect to an important issue involving big powers and regional diplomacy can be a timely diversion for the Egyptian government that is trying to assert its independent role in global affairs.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi on Monday said the West was to blame for the hold-up. He had insisted last week that Egyptian officials welcomed the proposal, made despite continuing unrest in Egypt that led Morsi to decree emergency rule in Port Said, Ismailia and Suez on January 27.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Monday that Iran and the West should agree on where to hold the talks on Tehran's nuclear program, which were supposed to take place this month.

"We think the essence of our talks is far more important than the atmosphere of any given town," Lavrov said at a news conference. "We hope that common sense will prevail, and we will stop being capricious like little children."

According to London-based Arabic paper Asharq Al-Awsat, quoting an unnamed Egyptian official, Cairo still hasn't decided about the issue, somewhat contradicting Salehi's statement. Yet, Tehran is still not convinced that the idea is "dead in the water", and government officials are still hopeful that Morsi and his foreign policy team will soon announce their readiness to host the Iran nuclear talk, as a sign of Egypt's maturity and heavyweight role in regional affairs.

The issue is a delicate one and contains multiple dimensions, such as Iran's push for normalization of relations with Egypt, or Cairo's balancing act in its relations with its financial backers in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, principally Saudi Arabia, which is why officially Cairo has so far opted for silence in reaction to Iran's public suggestion.

"Hosting the talks, as was the case last year with Turkey and Iraq, carries certain prestige and political advantages, and incidentally that is why Iran is not in favor of Istanbul any more because of Turkey's aggressive role against Syria, and Egyptian officials should know that on the whole this would be beneficial rather than harmful to their interests," said a Tehran University political science professor who spoke to the author on the condition of anonymity.

Despite their differences over Syria, clearly manifested at last August's summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran, where the visiting Morsi lambasted the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Tehran and Cairo nevertheless have a great deal in common that dictates a "twin pillar" strategy in the Middle East aimed at tackling the region's plethora of peace and conflict issues (See Egypt and Iran, new twin pillars, Asia Times Online, September 1, 2012).

For sure, much like last year's Baghdad talks, a Cairo round will carry positive implications for Tehran, reflecting a greater regional depth and (at least implicitly) garnering Egyptian sympathy for Iran's nuclear stance that it has an "inalienable right" to possess a civilian nuclear fuel cycle, just as Egypt has repeatedly signed onto various Non-Aligned Movement communique endorsing this right.

At a time of growing tensions with Turkey, which has embraced NATO's anti-missile system which has a clear eye toward both Iran and Russia, such NATO's intrusions may need to be offset by greater show of solidarity among the Middle East nations that do not subscribe to Western prescriptions.

Lest we forget, Morsi has questioned France's military intervention in Mali, rationalized in the familiar post 9/11 language of "war on terror", although few can deny France's other ambition of projecting power in its former colonies and beyond. Morsi is planning a tour of Germany and France and it remains to be seen if he will remain steadfast in his subtle criticism of France's "blind mission in Mali", to paraphrase the former French prime minister, Dominique de Villepin.

Iran is sufficiently alarmed by the growing NATO intrusion to set aside its traditional misgivings about the "Russian bear" and enter into a new security agreement with Moscow. The agreement calls for greater Iran-Russia intelligence cooperation and is a definite sign of Tehran's and Moscow's growing disquiet about Western intentions in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East. The big question is whether Morsi and his foreign policy circle are comfortable with the present pattern of NATO interventionism in the Middle East and, if not, are they willing to move closer to Iran and Russia?

Indeed, this key question lays bare the important foreign policy choices that need to be made by the post-revolutionary Egyptian political system dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, which traces itself back to the mid-19th century anti-colonial crusade of the movement's forefathers, for example the Mahdi in Sudan in the 1880s, who inspired a generation of Egyptian Islamists in early 20th century.

Bottom line, this is a question of authenticity and fidelity to the movement's founding (anti-neocolonial) religious ideology. Indeed, the powerful attraction of shared ideological sentiments between Iran and Egypt may eventually melt away all the present hesitations and cautiousness regarding the importance of building solid bridges between Tehran and Cairo - the region has had enough Western manipulation and constant remapping the political geography for the assertive powers such as Egypt to ignore.

One reason why there is a strong resistance by the European powers to hold the next Iran talks in Cairo is that it weakens their coercive diplomacy toward Tehran by raising the prospect of a more forceful pro-Iran position by Egypt undermining the Western strategy vis-a-vis Iran, at a time when the nuclear-armed Israel is subjected to absolutely no pressure whatsoever.

Both Egypt and Iran have been enthusiastic supporters of the idea of a Middle East nuclear weapons-free zone, particularly at the various nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conferences as far back as 2000. And both Tehran and Cairo have been critical of the recent US decision to cancel the world summit on this subject matter in Finland last December.

Indirectly then, Cairo's willingness to host the next round of Iran nuclear talks would send a clear signal regarding the Iran-Egypt common cause on this issue, which raises the subject of Israel's bombs - which need to be taken into consideration in any serious non-proliferation effort in the Middle East.

It would be smart diplomacy for the "new Egypt" to embrace Iran's suggestion and convince the Western governments that it can be a suitable and neutral host, heeding its mission to play a bigger and bigger role in regional conflict management than Egypt ever did before the Arab Spring. This is a political, strategic and even theoretical challenge for Cairo, but one that it should boldly embrace.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi , PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry, click here. He is author of Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) and Looking for Rights at Harvard. His latest book is UN Management Reform: Selected Articles and Interviews on United Nations CreateSpace (November 12, 2011).

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