Egypt Has Chosen Who to Identify With – and It's Not Iran

Those who expected that Morsi's presence at the conference would bring Egypt and Iran closer together, would have to wait for another opportunity.

“The revolution in Syria is against the oppressive Syrian regime,” Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi stated in his address on Thursday before the Non-Aligned Movement conference in Tehran. That statement, which prompted the Syrian delegation to leave the hall, made it immediately clear that Egypt did not intend to honor “diplomatic courtesy” by providing Iran with the support it longed for.

“The Syrian and Palestinian people seek freedom, respect and human justice,” Morsi added, adding that “Egypt is willing to work with all sides in order to stop the bloodshed.” But Morsi managed to infuriate more than just Syria. When he said that the “Egyptian revolution was the cornerstone of the Arab Spring, days after the upheaval in Tunisia, and then in Yemen, Libya, and now against the oppressive Syria regime,” the Egyptian president refuted the Islamic Republic’s version, according to which the Arab Spring was an offshoot of the Islamic Revolution.

It seems that those in Iran or Israel who had expected that Morsi’s presence at the conference would bring Egypt and Iran closer together, or might even lead to a turning point in the semi-severed diplomatic ties between the nations, would have to wait for another opportunity. Morsi, who will be hosted at the White House in three weeks, does not intend to change Egypt’s foreign policy toward Iran, for the time being.

This was the Egyptian president’s first chance to conduct a foreign policy aimed at regaining Egypt’s regional stature. Shortly after his election, Morsi found himself having to deal with American pressure over Iran and the Sinai; with the International Monetary Fund about loans that are essential for rebuilding Egypt’s economy; and with China, in a bid to draw investments.

He had to decide on Egypt’s position on Iran at a time when Egypt is dependent on massive aid from Saudi Arabia, Iran’s bitter rival, and this further narrows his maneuvering space. His public appearance in Iran and the wording of his speech both indicate that Egypt, while a member of NAM, has decided with whom it wishes to identify.

Nor was United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon sparing in his criticism of Iran. In his measured delivery, with frowning Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at his side, Ban spoke of “serious concerns on human rights abuses” and asserted that Iran must take concrete steps to address the concerns of the International Atomic Energy Agency and prove to the world that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.

The UN chief also stressed that Iran should cooperate with international organizations and with P5+1 members and declared that the Islamic republic “has a role to play and be a part of the solution” in Syria. Ban, like Morsi, spoke of the Syrian uprising as one that was created in Syria and sprang forth from the people, rather than being an imported revolution – that is, a Western plot – as both Syria and Iran claim.

However, Ban also delivered a less-than-subtle message to Israel when he called for making the Middle East entirely free of nuclear weapons. That position, which is shared by all nations in the region, has always concerned Israel, which is afraid that dismantling the Iranian nuclear program will be conditioned on shutting down the program that foreign reports claim it has.

Morsi’s and Ban’s speeches outline the limits of any agreement between Iran, Syria and their sponsors in China and Russia, and those of most Arab nations, which see Iran and its allies as a threat to Arab hegemony in the Middle East. While Iran can expect that by the end of conference most NAM states will call for lifting the sanctions against it, it is clear that Tehran is on a collision course with the entire world when it comes to the Syrian issue.

As opposed to the down-to earth speeches delivered by representatives of countries attending the summit, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad chose to speak from the position of a regional power that wants to change the global agenda. Ahmadinejad called for changing the UN regulation that gives veto power to the five permanent members of the Security Council. Such a structure “does not permit any country in the world to obtain its rights,” he said, apparently forgetting that it was actually the vetoes of Russia and China that saved Iran from much harsher sanctions.

He went on to say “we must build a new world” in which a mere handful of countries cannot exploit the resources of the rest of the world. “Globalization must respect divinity and human rights, as opposed to entrenching the rule of the few,” Ahmadinejad said.

The speeches of Ahmadinejad and Khamenei could be viewed as the words of the leaders of a conquered state straining to break the chains of old colonialism. But it is this seemingly outdated content that exemplifies the dominant worldview among Iran’s conservative leadership echelon. It reflects a nation that still feels threatened and persecuted, and whose right to develop nuclear technology is being revoked by the same nations that either conquered it or controlled its resources in the past.