Tuesday, October 24,  2017

Politics

The Syria Test in Iran-Egypt Ties

BY Alex Vatanka

President Morsi has been explicit about his desire to see Egypt play a more significant regional role. And in doing so, he has identified two key regional challenges: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the civil war in Syria. On paper, both issues can act as vehicles to bring Egypt and Iran together if they can find common ground about the ultimate objectives. Thus far, the opposite has been true and the question of Syria has pitted Tehran against Morsi.


When in June 2012 Mohammad Morsi took over the presidency in Egypt, Tehran was electrified. But Morsi’s rhetoric and policies have thus far left Iran profoundly disappointed even as Iranian leaders and official media still continue to pay some lip-service to the idea of a budding strategic alliance between the two countries. In Tehran, the authorities have not only stopped praising Morsi as an Islamist revolutionary, but some corners in Tehran are already expressing significant misgivings about the Egyptian Islamist and his ultimate true political ideology and agenda.

Why would Mohamed Morsi who was elected democratically in the Arab World’s largest republic choose to visit Saudi Arabia, an absolute Arab monarchy that was to the near end backing Hosni Mubarak when Iran early on threw its unconditional support behind the Egyptian revolutionaries? 
Short-lasted Euphoria

It did not take long before the Islamic Republic began to have serious doubts about the capacity of Mohammad Morsi to be the Egyptian leader who would reestablish ties between the two large Middle Eastern states. 


First, on 10 July, days after having taken over the presidency, Morsi made his first official foreign trip, which took him to Saudi Arabia, Tehran’s chief regional rival. At the time, Iranian officials remained silent despite the misgivings they surely would have had about Morsi’s choice. But already then the semi-official Iranian media were openly debating Morsi’s calculations.


Why would a man who was elected democratically in the Arab World’s largest republic choose to visit an absolute Arab monarchy that was to the near end backing Hosni Mubarak when Iran early on threw its unconditional support behind the Egyptian revolutionaries? To find the answer to that question one only had to look at the diabolical state of Egypt’s economy and its empty state coffers and that foreign financial aid was the principle policy priority of the new Morsi administration. 


The other event that shaped early Iranian perception about Morsi was not as easily explainable as pointing to Cairo’s acute financial needs. On 30 August, in his speech in Tehran at the 16th summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), Morsi used his podium to strongly criticize Tehran’s ally, the Bashar Al Assad regime in Damascus. This embarrassment for Tehran aside, Morsi seemingly went out of his way to openly depict his visit to Tehran as a mere formality to hand-over the rotating presidency of the NAM to Iran. The Egyptian president spent only four hours in Tehran and there was no meeting with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Morsi’s neglect, if not disrespect, of his Iranian hosts was clear and for everyone to see.

An Iranian-Egyptian understanding about the future of Syria would be exactly the kind of common ground that would provide momentum which can catapult Iranian-Egyptian relations to closer ties. This line of argument from Tehran, however, presumes it would be Egypt that would have to realign its policy and move in the direction of Tehran on the issue.
Morsi has also been explicit about his desire to see Egypt play a more significant regional role. And in doing so, he has identified two key regional challenges: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the civil war in Syria. On paper, both issues can act as vehicles to bring Egypt and Iran together if they can find common ground about the ultimate objectives. Thus far, the opposite has been true and the question of Syria has pitted Tehran against Morsi.


The Road to Cairo is via Damascus

A commentary in Iran’s influential Fars News agency in September claimed that an Iranian-Egyptian understanding about the future of Syria would be exactly the kind of common ground that would provide momentum which can catapult Iranian-Egyptian relations to closer ties. This line of argument from Tehran, however, presumes it would be Egypt that would have to realign its policy and move in the direction of Tehran on the issue. Simply put, the Iranian position on Bashar Al-Assad and his regime is that “gradual” change is better than the immediate removal of Assad, according to diplomats at the Arab League in Cairo quoted by Egyptian press.


The Egyptian side too touts Syria as an arena where common ground can be found, but Cairo is seemingly equally adamant that it is Iran, which needs to see the light and abandon its support for Assad. Morsi reportedly told his Iranian counter President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that Tehran has to shift its policy and support for Assad in order for relations between Tehran and Cairo to improve. 


Meanwhile, there have been reports that Cairo has offered Iran an incentive package including restoration of full diplomatic relations and an Egyptian offer to mediate between Tehran and the Arab GCC states. These claims have been dismissed by Tehran but there is little doubt that Iran is very keen to minimize the damage that its support for Assad creates elsewhere in the Arab World and particularly with the new administration under Morsi. Beside fears that its support for Assad will hurt its popular appeal among the Arab masses, Tehran is also mindful of the likelihood that other regional actors can circumvent Iran as a conflict resolution strategy is formulated for Syria.

Iran is particularly concerned about joint Egyptian-Turkish efforts to squeeze Syria’s Assad at the expense of Iranian influence and role as a mediator.
It appears that Iran is particularly concerned about joint Egyptian-Turkish efforts to squeeze Assad at the expense of Iranian influence and role as a mediator. Furthermore, Morsi, as a Muslim Brother, is certainly ideologically closer to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist AKP party than he is to Iran’s Shia Islamist model and recent statements from Cairo and Ankara are full of promises of a new era of robust political and trade ties between the two states. Turkey and Egypt can also repeat any joint mediation efforts on the Palestinian front, which would again come at the expense of Iranian influence and agenda.


In regards to Syria, in order to maintain itself as a relevant mediator, Iran has kept its language about the fate of Assad as vague as possible. Salehi told Germany’s Spiegel on 8 October that he had in his meeting with Bashar Al Assad presented the collective demands of the Islamic Quartet: “reforms, concessions and sincere changes.” This sort of posturing is the minimum the Egyptians would need to see from Iran, despite the fact that such ultimatums are unlikely to change the realities of the Syrian civil war. But again, the Iranians are hopeful that no bridges to Egypt need to be burned over the issue of Syria.

Alex Vatanka is an Iranian-born scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C.



READ MORE BY:  Alex Vatanka

 

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