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Making friends with Iran a ‘risky’ tactic for Egypt
Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi arrived in Tehran Thursday for a summit of the 120-nation Non-Aligned Movement, in what is the first visit of an Egyptian head of state to Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Newly elected Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi is due to attend the Iranian-hosted summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) taking place from Thursday August 31 – a highly symbolic visit which could mark a new era of diplomatic relations between Cairo and Tehran.
Those relations were broken off by the Islamic Republic in protest at Egypt’s US-brokered peace treaty with Israel in 1979.
For Tehran, Muslim Brotherhood-backed Morsi’s historic visit is a diplomatic triumph.
“Egypt is the cornerstone of the region and has a special stature in the Arab and Muslim countries... and we want relations of friendship and brotherhood with it," Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said in an interview with Egypt’s state-run Al-Ahram newspaper on Tuesday, adding that Tehran hoped to restore "normal" ties with Cairo.
"We will pursue this path, and restoration of relations depends only on protocol measures," he added.
‘A mere formality’
Cairo, however, has been much more cautious. Conscious of its close historical relationship with the USA and the Gulf states, Morsi’s spokesman Yasser Ali insisted that the visit was “a mere formality” and would only last four hours.
“There is no question for the moment of restoring diplomatic relation,” he told the Egyptian media.
“Iran is trying to talk about this visit as much as possible to show that it is not isolated on the international scene despite Western pressure [over its nuclear programme], and at a time when Israel is being increasingly threatening,” said Iran specialist Bernard Hourcade at France’s publicly-funded CNRS research institute.
“On the flip side, Egypt has a much greater interest in playing this visit down. Morsi does not want to aggravate Washington or Riyadh,” he told FRANCE 24.
“But the broadly consensual context of the NAM summit is a reasonable time to re-establish contact. It is much less significant and not nearly as controversial as a state visit would be.”
A gradual thaw?
But despite the Egyptian reluctance to overplay the Tehran visit, a gradual thaw in relations between Egypt and Iran cannot be ruled out.
Since his election, Morsi has sought to redefine his country’s diplomatic outlook, which has been effectively frozen for the last three decades.
“Sidelined on the international scene since the 1980 Camp David accords were signed, Egypt is now looking to find its feet on the international stage,” explained Hourcade. “Egypt is doing this by profiting from the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as from the Syrian crisis, to play the role of an intermediary in place to speak to all parties.”
Morsi, whose election the Iranian foreign minister hailed as “a splendid vision of democracy” marking “the final phase of the Islamic re-awakening”, has been working hard.
In mid-August, he proposed setting up a committee that included Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey to try to resolve the Syrian crisis – a big departure from his predecessor Hosni Mubarak, a strong ally of the Saudis and deeply suspicious of Iran as a country bent on destabilising the region.
Iran ‘too important to ignore’
“The Muslim Brotherhood has always sought to build bridges with Iran,” explained Tewfik Aclimandos, an Egypt specialist at the College de France University in Paris.
“They also believe in dialogue between Sunni [Egypt is predominantly Sunni] and Shiite [Iran is a Shiite theocracy] Muslims, counter to the mutual suspicion engendered by the Saudis and the Mubarak regime.”
More pragmatically, Egypt’s new leaders recognise that with embattled Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad on the brink, the regional diplomatic scales need to be rebalanced, according to Bernard Hourcade.
“”Despite regional tensions between Sunnis and Shiites, Egypt and Iran both see the need to establish relations and develop partnerships between the two Islamic states.”
For the Saudis, the US and Israel, who all want to maintain pressure on Tehran because of its nuclear ambitions, closer relations between Egypt and Iran are an unpalatable prospect.
But above all, it is Saudi Arabia, an historically vital economic partner to Egypt, which will raise the loudest objections, according to Hourcade.
Billions of Saudi dollars
“The Egypt of 2012, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, reminds them too much of Iran in 1979,” he said. “They will be watching closely.”
“The Saudis do not like the idea of closer ties between Cairo and Tehran one bit,” said Aclimandos.
But Riyadh has a number of cards up its sleeve. According to US magazine Foreign Policy, the Saudis pumped 1.5 billion dollars into the Egyptian economy last June, on top of a 750-billion-dollar credit to the country in lieu of importing Saudi oil. Saudi Arabia also has investments in Egypt worth between 12 and 27 billion dollars, according to the magazine.
It is a source of support that Egypt, which is to a large degree financially and militarily dependent on the USA, can ill afford to lose.
“If Morsi really wants to become an indispensable regional intermediary in the Middle East, flirting with Iran could be a risky game, especially considering the dire state of the Egyptian economy,” Aclimandos said.