Mohammed Morsi intends to visit Iran
In the aftermath of these landmark events Iran’s relations with Egypt deteriorated rapidly, as the Mubarak regime inched diplomatically closer to the Gulf States and backed Iran’s enemy, Iraq, during the eight-year Iran-Iraq War.
But with the ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood to power in the wake of the Arab Spring, a visit by Morsi to Iran could very well signal a thaw in relations between two of the most powerful Middle Eastern states.
A successful rapprochement between Egypt and Iran could have profound implications on the region. At present, Iran has been backed into a corner by US-led sanctions over its nuclear program and is in desperate need of a way out. Meanwhile, under Morsi, Egypt will attempt to reclaim its status as the Arab world’s traditional leader, a position it had forfeited in 1979 when it signed its peace agreement with Israel.
Should an Egyptian-Iranian rapprochement occur, it is entirely plausible that Egypt could help facilitate a face-saving option for Iran, thereby enhancing Egyptian prestige. Ideally Tehran would like foreign sanctions to be lifted, whilst appearing not to cave to Western demands on a nascent Iranian nuclear industry. Egypt might succeed where others have failed, in persuading Iran to moderate its position on the nuclear issue.
After all, Egypt maintains good relations with the US, has vital interests in the region, and recognizes that a nuclear arms race in the Gulf is not in its national security interests. In many ways, the Egyptian position on this issue runs in close parallel to that of Turkey, which has put forth considerable effort to help mediate a solution between Iran and the West.
Another implication relates to the on-going civil war in Syria. The purpose of the NAM summit in Tehran is, ostensibly, to work towards a solution to the Syrian crisis. Given Egypt and Iran’s parallel roles as prominent Sunni and Shi’a states, the sectarian strife plaguing Syria could potentially be eased by their cooperation.
Indeed, according to the Washington Post, the decision to attend the NAM summit came just a few days ago when Morsi proposed including Iran in a group of Islamic nations, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, that intended to mediate an end to Syria’s civil war. When Iran agreed to participate, analysts took this as a sign that “Egypt was beginning to regain some of the diplomatic and strategic clout it once held in the region.”
In the end, any improvement of relations between Egypt and Iran is a good thing and should not be feared. Certainly Israel and the US are wary of this, but they should not obstruct this process in any way, and in fact should encourage it. Israel needs to accept that Egypt intends to play a meaningful role in the politics of the region. This is not a bad thing, so long as Egypt remains committed to its peace with Israel. The US also needs to encourage the growth of Egypt’s influence in the region, while avoiding any acts that could potentially derail its somewhat fragile relationship with the Brotherhood. If the Egyptian leadership wish to engage Iran diplomatically, the US needs to step back and allow this process to run its course. While there is no way of predicting how this tentative rapprochement will play out, it is an encouraging development coming out of a region that rarely provides positive news.