By Iran Review
By Davoud Ahmadzadeh
Holding of the 16th summit meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in Tehran is one of the biggest international events which Iran has hosted following the Islamic Revolution and is a good opportunity to promote Iran’s diplomatic might and reduce regional tensions. Iran has, therefore, set its eyes on further expansion of cooperation among member states. Mohamed Morsi, the newly elected Islamist president of Egypt, is also supposed to attend the summit meeting to transfer chairmanship of the NAM to Iran. Undoubtedly, this will be a great opportunity to rebuild historical relations between two influential countries in the Islamic world and the Middle East which should be analyzed from various angles. There are questions about the outlook of relations between Tehran and Cairo following the meeting. Will the symbolic presence of Egypt’s chief executive be enough to lead to a thaw in two countries’ diplomatic relations? Why Iran is so eager to have Mohamed Morsi in the summit? What obstacles exist on the way of two nations’ convergence? Before discussing the current level of relations and Iran’s enthusiasm to restore official ties with Egypt, we must first have a brief review of relations between the two countries under the former Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak.
During 30 years of Mubarak’s rule, the two countries had difficult relations. Despite temporary willingness of both sides to reduce obstacles and tensions, due to security-based views of Cairo and its powerful relations with the West and Israel, neither side was very successful in restoring bilateral ties. During Mubarak’s rule, Egypt was part of the first security ring of the West and an important player which guaranteed Israel’s regional interests. Mubarak not only followed Western policies of his predecessor, but also tried to play a mediatory role between Arabs and Israel. In doing this, he took advantage of the United States’ gratuitous aid, which amounted to two billion dollars a year, to buy military equipment. This was, in fact an award to Egypt for its close ties to Israel. Egypt’s membership in the political club of Arab conservative states and its support for anti-Iranian policies of Saudi Arabia and some other littoral states of the Persian Gulf, a prominent example of which was Egypt’s support for repetitive and baseless claims of the United Arab Emirates about three Iranian islands in the Persian Gulf, practically prevented restoration of two countries’ relations to the normal. At the same time, Iran continuously indicated its willingness to rebuild ties with Egypt and forget about historical hostilities in order to help the two nations to get closer. This was more so at a juncture when Iran was following a policy of détente in order to create convergence in the Muslim world, especially with regard to countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. However, presence of powerful figures affiliated to the West and Israel, like Omar Suleiman (former heady of Egypt’s intelligence agency), did not allow Iran’s efforts at détente to bear fruit.
After Mubarak was overthrown and Islamist politicians came to power in Egypt, Iran supported civil and social demands of the Egyptian people through correct understanding of political developments in that country. Egypt’s exit from the political club of reactionary countries supporting West’s policies in the region to join the moderate front could have changed the balance of the regional power equation in favor of Iran and the anti-Israeli resistance front. Meanwhile, the complex game of power was still going on in the land of Pharaohs following the presidential elections in Egypt and victory of the Islamist figures. Presence of top military commanders at the head of that country’s security and intelligence posts, on the one hand, and their close ties to the West and Israel, on the other hand, was a stumbling block on the way of any possible opening up in Tehran’s relations with Cairo. To increase his political power and remove problematic people who had been close to Mubarak’s regime from their posts, Mohamed Morsi was looking for a suitable opportunity. That opportunity was offered after recent incidents in Sinai Desert in which a number of Egyptian soldiers were killed by radical groups affiliated with Islamist political currents. The president charged the defense minister (Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi] with inefficiency to run the country’s military and security affairs and dismissed him in a surprising move. Although Morsi had given in to generals’ game during elections in order to prevent more political chaos in the country as well as a possible coup d’état by the army, and had practically confirmed the ruling of Egypt’s Supreme Court and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) for dissolution of the parliament, the incident offered him with a good opportunity to cancel that ruling as well.
Anyway, domestic developments in Egypt have already proved that after stabilizing domestic conditions of Egypt, the Islamist president is bent on making Egypt’s regional policies more active. Although Morsi’s first foreign trip was destined to Saudi Arabia and some analysts maintained that the trip aimed to show that Egypt will continue to remain among conservative and pro-American Arab states in the region, there is also another angle to that trip. Perhaps, Egypt, which is facing increasing economic problems and high inflation following the revolution in 2011, is trying to maintain cordial relations with Arab countries which are among its traditional allies. Undoubtedly, once Egypt’s economic conditions return to normal and political calm is restored in the land of pharaohs, Egypt will have more maneuvering room in its foreign policy. The post-Mubarak Egypt has proved in the short period that has passed since Mubarak’s downfall that it is committed to the rights of Palestinians as well as the national reconciliation between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. Despite Israel’s efforts to create crisis in the region, including in Sinai Desert, Cairo has decided to distance from Mubarak regime’s policies by opening Rafah border crossing to the beleaguered people of Gaza Strip.
Perhaps, the greatest development in Egypt’s foreign policy during the short period that Morsi has been president is his participation in the 16th NAM summit in Tehran. Undoubtedly, Iran is trying to pave the way for presence of all member states of the Non-Aligned Movement in the meeting. However, participation of Morsi in the meeting, in order to hand over the presidency to Iran, is important from another viewpoint. In order to undermine Iran’s regional power and prove to the world’s public opinion that international sanctions against Tehran on ground of its nuclear energy program have isolated Iran, the West and Israel are doing what they can in order to prevent possible proximity of two influential powers in the Middle East region. Therefore, by highlighting the two countries’ different approaches to domestic issues of Syria as well as security arrangements in the Persian Gulf region, they are trying to erect new obstacles on the way of the restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries. On the one hand, Western political circles are highlighting Iran’s support for Shia currents in the region, including the emergence of Shia Crescent, to depict Tehran’s policies as against regional security and the security of Egypt. They believe that Egypt belongs to the Sunni world and are, thus, putting much emphasis on political and ideological gaps between the two countries. However, despite all negative propaganda launched by the Western media to dissuade Mohamed Morsi from taking part in the important summit meeting of NAM in Tehran, his presence will prove that the Egyptian foreign policy has underwent a major metamorphosis and the new Egypt will not easily surrender to policies of the West and some reactionary regimes in the region.
On the other hand, Egypt is the intellectual hub of the Arab world and due to its special geopolitical situation, it can play a decisive role in reducing regional conflicts, including in Syria. Cairo’s proposal for the establishment of a contact group, which was offered in the recent summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation member states in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, was also accepted and welcomed by Iran. That proposal can turn into a main axis of the NAM summit with potential to provide a solution to the complicated crisis of Syria. Iran and Egypt can take advantage of their diplomatic capacities in order to bring about peace and tranquility in Syria and prevent foreign intervention in this Arab country. The presence of Mohamed Morsi as well as participation of Syria and other important countries which are stakeholders in Syria crisis provides a precious opportunity through which Iran and Egypt can get their positions close together, bring about conditions for the resolution of the Syrian crisis, and strip the West of any possible initiative in this regard. At the same time, it will be unrealistic to expect that Mohamed Morsi’s presence in Tehran will be enough condition for the normalization of bilateral ties in the short run. However, proposing common plans and initiatives, such as the issue of creating a Middle East free from nuclear weapons, which was offered by two countries in 1974 and was also taken up by the United Nations General Assembly, can play a very important role in facilitating convergence between the two countries. Iran and Egypt are suspicious of the West’s double standards with regard to nuclear policies of regional countries. In fact, they believe that the West’s double-standard policy of supporting Israel’s nuclear arsenal while putting pressure on Muslim countries to prevent them from developing peaceful nuclear technology is a main reason for the prolongation of crisis in the region. Therefore, agreement and consultations between two countries about security matters and regional problems can help them to overcome past misunderstandings and take practical strides toward détente between two great nations with brilliant civilizational backgrounds.
Faculty member, Islamic Azad University-Tehran and Expert on Egypt Issues