Deciphering Egypt's Iran policy
It was clear that under Mubarak, Egypt saw Iran as an insufferable rival for hegemony in the Muslim world. Under Morsi, it is much harder to tell.
Will Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi really visit one of Iran’s nuclear facilities when he arrives in Tehran on Thursday as Mansour Haqiqatpour, a member of the Committee on National Security and Foreign Policy claimed Sunday in an interview with Press TV?
Who knows? In the two months since the Muslim Brotherhood leader was elected, his policy toward Iran has been everything but consistent.
While it was clear that under Hosni Mubarak Egypt saw Iran as an insufferable rival for hegemony in the Muslim world, Nabil Elaraby, Arab League Secretary General who served as foreign minister under Mubarak said in July that “Iran is not an enemy,” indicating that things were about to change.
Days later, following the official announcement of Morsi’s election, an interview with the president-elect was published by the Iranian Fars News Agency, in which he promised a restoration of ties between the two countries, previously broken in 1980 following the Iranian revolution and Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel.
According to Fars, Morsi said that “we must restore normal relations with Iran based on shared interests, and expand areas of political coordination and economic cooperation because this will create a balance of pressure in the region.” But did he? The next day Morsi’s spokesman denied the interview ever took place and threatened to sue Fars.
Who to believe? There is a precedent of Morsi’s office issuing questionable denials, as we saw a few weeks ago when the Egyptian President’s office tried to deny that he sent a letter to Israeli President Shimon Peres, even though the letter was passed through the Egyptian embassy in Tel-Aviv. Another empty denial came three weeks ago when Yasser Ali, Morsi’s spokesman said that contrary to reports, the president would not be visiting Tehran.
So now we know that Morsi will be attending the Non-Aligned nations summit in Iran but according to Mr. Ali, he will be there only for a few hours and won’t be holding any bilateral talks with Iran’s leaders. Does that include tours of nuclear reactors? Ali also told the New York Times that upgrading diplomatic relations between the two countries was not in the cards.
Egypt, even under the Muslim Brotherhood, is a rival to Iran’s designs for regional dominance. Morsi’s first job is to stabilize the local economy and he needs the financial assistance and loans from the United States and Iran’s Sunni Gulf neighbors (and enemies) Saudi Arabia and Qatar. None of these governments will be happy with a warming of relations between Cairo and Tehran.
Iran, reeling from sanctions, is not in a position to act as a sponsor. But Morsi is also extremely sensitive to any charges from rivals both within and outside of Egypt of subservience to American (and by extension) Israeli foreign policy. Friendliness to Iran, even superficial, is one way of exhibiting diplomatic independence.
Morsi’s latest overture is the “committee of four” initiative to seek a solution in revolution-torn Syria. The committee is to include the four Muslim nations playing roles in the Syrian uprising – Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran. This would seem to be giving Iran, Syrian President Bashar Assad's closest ally, an official say in Syria’s future, a role that the Obama administration has been determined to deny. This would seem to be a snub of America by Morsi, but once again it remains doubtful whether this committee will ever be convened, or even if Iran would like to be a member. After all, it would be under the spot in a distinct disadvantage of one against three. But whether or not the initiative ever takes off, Morsi gets another headline presenting him as an independently minded leader.