Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s historic visit to Cairo for a summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), as well as President Mohamed Morsy’s red carpet reception, has led to mounting speculation across the region that a possible rapprochement is in the making after a decades-long deadlock.
Morsy’s warm reception reflected a shift in attitude from his visit to Iran during the summit of the 120-member Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran in August, observers say. Then, the newly elected Muslim Brotherhood president slammed the Syrian regime — Iran’s biggest Arab ally — calling it “oppressive,” and gave a special salute to the companions of the Prophet Mohamed, which was considered an insult to Iran’s Shia tradition.
But the political situation in Egypt is also shifting, with dwindling support for the first elected president, not only from traditional secular opposition groups but also from his major political allies, the ultraconservative Salafi movement.
Ahmadinejad’s visit, the first by an Iranian president since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, was panned by Salafi leaders and supporters, whose reception of Ahmadinejad was not quite so cordial.
With both leaders facing mounting pressure at home and abroad, detractors of Morsy and his Iranian counterpart have been questioning the motivations behind the historic visit. Many agree the visit sends a strong message, at least to international powers.
Ahmadinejad’s visit comes as his government faces significant turbulence at home: Economic sanctions imposed by the US and its Western allies are further isolating Iran economically and politically.
“The main goal for Ahmadinejad and the Iranian government at large is to seek some sort of detente with Egypt. Iran is isolated diplomatically and economically, and could only benefit from a meaningful rapprochement with Egypt,” Bernd Kaussler, researcher in Iranian foreign policy and professor of political science at James Madison University, tells Egypt Independent.
Bessma Momani, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, believes the visit rather highlights symbolic overtones for both leaders.
“This was not a visit about Shia-Sunni issues, but rather a geopolitical calculation to visit a very important Arab country that is at a crossroads for political change. Ahmadinejad wants to convey regional leadership and to claim success in opening and warming relations with Egypt. He also benefits from having an Islamist leader, like Morsy, greet him warmly,” she argues, referring to a possible plan by the Iranian president to cement political support for his regime as the 2013 presidential elections loom.
“With political tensions in Iran, Ahmadinejad wants to bolster his image as a leader and a diplomat. This helps his allies and supporters who are contending for the 2013 elections,” she says.
For Morsy, Momani believes, the symbolism may help him as political support for his Islamist regime dwindles. “With so much trouble at home, Morsy may have wanted to look like a global statesman by welcoming Ahmadinejad. He may also want to signal his independence from Western political interests, as we’ve seen through his warming relations with the Hamas’ leadership,” she adds.
But it was not all pleasantries between the two countries. The Iranian leader was attacked twice during his trip to Cairo. And Al-Azhar, the Sunni world’s most prestigious seat of learning, directed a sharp, biting statement at Ahmadinejad, who later appeared waving the victory sign in a joint press conference after his visit there.
During a news conference, an Al-Azhar spokesperson gave the Iranian leader a public scolding, listing five demands, which included the protection of Sunni and Khuzestani minorities in Iran, ending political interference in Bahrain, ending its support of the Syrian regime, and ending Iran’s ostensible mission to spread Shia Islam across the region.
Testy comments aside, relations between Egypt and Iran have largely improved since Morsy’s election in June.
Vexing the Gulf
As Tehran continues to flex its regional muscles, much to Washington’s annoyance, Cairo appears to have begun imparting messages of its own, marking out a foreign policy route that could equally distress Gulf counterparts.
Mustafa El Labbad, director of Al-Sharq Center for Regional and Strategic Studies, tells Egypt Independent that recent visits by Iranian officials such as the unconfirmed visit by the leader of Iran’s revolutionary guards Qassim Solaimany, the visit of Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi and the latest visit of Ahmadinejad are not coincidental.
“Morsy sends a clear message to the Gulf countries and especially the [United Arab Emirates] that he can easily create alternative strategic relationship,” Labbad says, adding that such “political vexing” is a response to the failure of the visit by Morsy adviser Essam al-Haddad to resolve the issue of 11 Egyptian detainees in the UAE. The latter are said to have strong connections to the Brotherhood’s international organization, in the midst of growing enmity between Egypt and the UAE..
Labbad argues that Morsy thus does not aim at real and deep rapprochement with Iran, but rather a cosmetic patch up to send signals to the Gulf. “The context here is very dangerous, because the revived relationship with Iran should be an addition to Egypt’s foreign policy, not a replacement of its relationship with the Gulf countries,” he adds.
Momani doubts such an inclination by Morsy, as Egypt cannot afford the cost of such a policy. “This strategy can backfire and upset Gulf donors and benefactors. Iran can never supply the kinds of funds that are provided by the Gulf,” she says.
As Iran and Egypt seek to carve out a new role in the changing political landscape of the region, the US and certain Gulf monarchies are keen that the two powers maintain a certain distance.
Analysts, however, believe that Washington understands that Ahmadinejad’s trip is more symbolic than game-changing, and should pose no serious threat to its close ties with Cairo, which were left unfazed by the Brotherhood’s rise to political power.
“Many Arab countries that enjoy good relationships with Iran actually enjoy the same level of warm relationship with the US administration. Qatar is a strong example,” Labbad says.
“The US also knows that the ceiling of the rapprochement between Egypt and Iran will be limited. Future relations will show an intermediary level that is going to end the decades-long deadlock, but will be, at the same time, below a full political alliance,” he adds.
Kaussler agrees that the US will not take the visit very seriously. “The US has maintained strong military-to-military relations with Egypt, and will continue to do so as long as the military apparatus dominates politics in Cairo. US foreign policy priorities will be to manage Egypt’s democratic transition without losing influence,” he argues.
Resolving the Syrian question
The two countries, however, remain at odds over several issues, including Syria, which was suspended from the OIC at its last summit despite Iranian objections.
After brokering a successful cease-fire agreement between Gaza and Israel, which garnered sweeping domestic support, Morsy is hoping to broker a similar deal for the Syrian people, whom he urged to unite under one opposition bloc in their fight for democracy.
Iran seems to be the only interlocutor in this regard.Kaussler argues that Morsy would like to see a Brotherhood-dominated Syrian government after President Bashar al-Assad. “Iran is still supporting their strongest Arab ally but — no doubt — working on Plan B,” he says.
“I think neither Morsy nor Ahmadinejad enjoy the authority to have complete control or knowledge of their respective government’s grand strategies for Syria. What seems certain is that a realist agenda determines foreign policy on both sides. Both seek a Syrian government they can control or at least influence,” he adds.