Egypt’s Morsi Moving Closer to Iran? Not So Fast
Egyptian foreign policy may be changing, but it isn’t suddenly embracing a pariah state.
Last month’s hosting of the Nonaligned Movement Summit in Tehran may have been booked as a diplomatic victory by the Iranians even if few of the member states bothered to send their government leaders and even fewer are particularly supportive of Iran’s uranium enrichment program which Western nations suspect was set up to attain a nuclear weapons capacity. One government leader notably did show up: Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, officially only to hand over the presidency of the movement to the Islamic republic.
Before Morsi’s visit, a leading member of Egypt’s ruling Muslim Brotherhood told Iran’s Fars News Agency that his presence “conveys this message to the United States and Israel, that the era of Egypt’s political obedience to Washington and Tel Aviv has ended.”
Iran’s foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi told the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram a week earlier than Iranians “want relations of friendship and brotherhood” with Egypt. Its “revolution,” he added, “opened a new chapter in Egypt’s relations with the outside world.”
Morsi’s office was quick to deny this. “The matter [of restoring diplomatic ties] is out of the question at this stage,” said a spokesman.
Asia Times Online‘s Spengler columnist, David P. Goldman, nevertheless interpreted Morsi’s attendance of the Nonaligned Summit in Tehran as a “dramatic diplomatic shift” in Egyptian foreign policy, one that denoted “the end of Iran’s diplomatic isolation in the Sunni Arab world.”
The same author pointed out in July that Egypt, since President Hosni Mubarak was toppled in February of last year, has run multibillion dollar monthly trade deficits while government revenue has steeply declined. He estimated that “the country’s annual financing needs probably exceed $20 billion.” Egypt was kept afloat only by loans from Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states, Iran’s nemeses, as well as the United States.
Taking that into consideration, I concluded last month that there was little hope of Egyptian-Iranian rapprochement.
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.
Certainly, the Iranians would like to see an Egyptian realignment. If Egypt’s ties with Riyadh and Washington are severed, it can make up for the nigh inevitable collapse of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria which is currently Iran’s only Arab ally. But Egypt has a pressing financial interest in preserving, or salvaging, relations with the Americans and the Saudis.
Egypt did agree to include Shia Iran in a “quartet” with Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the Middle East’s two leading Sunni powers, to negotiate an end to the civil war in Syria, a conflict that pits a majority Sunni population against the minority Alawite regime of Assad.
At the meeting of the Arab League in Cairo where the formation of the quartet was announced, Morsi warned his Syrian counterpart though, “your time won’t be long.” He urged Assad, “Don’t listen to the voices that tempt you to stay.”
Daniel R. DePetris predicted at the Atlantic Sentinel, immediately after Mubarak’s resignation, that Egyptian foreign policy would change.
Hosni Mubarak cooperated and advanced virtually every American and Western policy in the Middle East without a compliant, including the containment of Iran and the closing of the Egyptian-Gaza border in order to drain Hamas of its weapons caches. With Mubarak finished, Washington will quickly discover how much more difficult it will be to convince a new Egyptian government to continue those policies, most of which are extremely unpopular across the Arab world.
The Morsi Administration has to take public opinion into consideration and the Muslim Brotherhood is more hostile to Israel than Egypt’s previous government but to interpret recent Egyptian offenses in the Sinai Peninsula, “supposedly in pursuit of terrorists,” as menacing to the Jewish state, as Spengler does, may be a stretch. Israel, after all, urged the Egyptians to “take matters into their own hands,” as defense minister Ehud Barak put it last month, and suppress the bedouin insurgency in the area which appears to have links with international jihadist groups.
The peninsula is demilitarized as a condition of the 1979 peace treaty with Israel but the latter consented to Egypt sending in troops to impose order — last year. For “some Israeli analysts” to fret “that Egypt might threaten Israel’s southern border in the event of an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities” is rather incredible, even if the deployment of hundreds of Egyptian troops with helicopters and tanks may have been more than they bargained for.
It is too soon to put Egypt in the Iranian camp. More likely, it will try to find a balance in its relations with the United States and Arab Sunni states on the one hand and those with Iran and Palestinian groups like Hamas on the other. Close ties with former remain definitely in its interests but Egyptian public opinion, certainly the Muslim Brotherhood, is tilted in favor of deepening ties with the latter — if only as a wedge against Israel.