Morsi’s Iran Visit Shows “Independence” from Washington

Egypt is more dependent on the United States than the Islamist group may like to admit.

President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt
President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt (Al Akhbar/Mosa’ab Elshamy)

A leading member of Egypt’s ruling Muslim Brotherhood says that President Mohamed Morsi’s visit to Iran this week demonstrates the Arab nation’s “independence” from the United States.

“Morsi’s presence in Tehran conveys this message to the United States and Israel, that the era of Egypt’s political obedience to Washington and Tel Aviv has ended,” Sabri Amer told Iran’s Fars News Agency.

Morsi will be in the Iranian capital to attend the sixteenth summit of the Nonaligned Movement, a Cold War era organization that includes African, Middle Eastern and South Asian nations as well as several countries in Latin America.

In the interview, Amer lamented that while Hosni Mubarak was in power between 1981 and 2011, “all the decisions and policies in both areas of domestic and foreign policy were made through coordination with the United States and the Zionist regime,” or Israel, “but the conditions have now changed in Egypt and the era of the ruling of the Egyptian regimes which were allies and loyal to the West has ended.”

The Iranian Foreign Ministry similarly claimed that Morsi’s visit will enhance Egyptian-Iranian relations even if he is scheduled to be in Tehran for just four hours on Thursday to hand over the presidency of the movement to the Islamic republic.

Iran’s foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi believes that his country is moving toward restoring diplomatic relations with Egypt. He told the Egyptian Al-Ahram newspaper last week that the Iranians “want relations of friendship and brotherhood” with Egypt. Its “revolution,” he added, which included Mubarak’s removal from office early last year, “opened a new chapter in Egypt’s relations with the outside world.”

Iranian state television reported on Sunday that Morsi will also visit the nuclear power plant in Bushehr in western Iran.

Iran and the West are locked in a diplomatic dispute over the former’s nuclear program which European nations, Israel and the United States suspect is designed to develop a nuclear weapons capability whereas Iran claims that its purpose is peaceful.

A spokesman for the Egyptian president denied on Saturday that Morsi’s visit would be more than ceremonial. “The matter [of restoring diplomatic ties] is out of the question at this stage,” Yasser Ali told the Saudi newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat.

That Ali chose a Saudi owned publication to dispel Iranian optimism about future relations with Cairo may have been coincidental but it is clear is that Riyadh and Tehran are vying for the Morsi Administration’s affections.

Under Mubarak, Egypt was a strong pillar of the American security order in the Middle East. In conjunction with Saudi Arabia, it upheld stable and nonthreatening relations with Israel and contained Iranian influence west of the Persian Gulf. The Egyptian army received hundreds of millions of dollars in annual military aid from Washington.

The demise of the military regime in Cairo, the generals’ attempts to curtail the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise notwithstanding, have, in the eyes of Iranian policymakers, provided an opening. If Egyptian ties with Riyadh and Washington can be severed, it could make up for the nigh inevitable collapse of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria which is currently Iran’s only Arab ally.

However, Egypt has a pressing financial interest in preserving, or salvaging, relations with the Americans and the Saudis.

In the wake of Mubarak’s resignation in February 2011, the Saudi kingdom provided emergency loans to the country’s interim military government. That assistance has dried up since the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Saudis abhor, came to power.

Former Saudi interior minister and crown prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz, who died two months ago, once described the Islamist group as “the source of all problems in the Islamic world” because it spawned the Palestinian militant organization Hamas and maintained links with Al Qaeda, which it officially denounced.

Egypt is now running a $3 billion monthly trade deficit. It depends on imports for half its caloric consumption. The tourism industry, which employs some two million Egyptians, have come to a virtual standstill. So has foreign investment. The economy is in far worse shape than when Egyptians took to the streets to demand regime change seventeen months ago.

American president Barack Obama, last May, promised to relieve Egypt of up to $1 billion in debt and lend or guarantee another $1 billion. Its annual financing needs could run up to $20 billion. With Iran suffering high inflation and reduced oil revenue as a result of Western sanctions, it is questionable whether it can aid Egypt financially in a meaningful way.

Even if the Muslim Brotherhood would rather strengthen ties with the Islamist regime of Iran — which, given the Shia-Sunni divide, is far from certain — its short-term survival in power depends to a considerable extent on American and Saudi generosity. Pampering the mullahs in Tehran is not going to do that much good.