Tehran Seeks to Keep its Options Open

Egyptian protesters raise their shoes as they shout political and religious slogans outside the Iranian ambassador's residence in Cairo on April 5, 2013 during a demonstration organised by Salafists to protest against Iranian tourists visiting Egypt and any political and diplomatic relations between Iran and Egypt. ( GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images) Egyptian protesters raise their shoes as they shout political and religious slogans outside the Iranian ambassador's residence in Cairo on April 5, 2013, during a demonstration organized by Salafists to protest against Iranian tourists visiting Egypt and any political and diplomatic relations between Iran and Egypt. (GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images)

Egyptian protesters raise their shoes as they shout political and religious slogans outside the Iranian ambassador's residence in Cairo on April 5, 2013, during a demonstration organized by Salafists to protest against Iranian tourists visiting Egypt and any political and diplomatic relations between Iran and Egypt. (GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images)

The political unrest in Egypt has left the Iranian authorities scrambling to forge some kind of durable strategy towards events in Cairo. It has to be durable because Tehran, as with the rest of the world, is not sure what will come from the ongoing turmoil in Egypt. Iran’s foreign ministry is calling the situation in Egypt as one that is “full of ambiguity,” and Tehran is positioning itself accordingly.

The fundamental question in Tehran is over whether the nationalist–secular–liberal political opposition in Cairo can—with help from the Egyptian military—keep the Muslim Brotherhood out of power. Or will there be a counter-coup in Cairo, with the Muslim Brothers occupying the presidency once again?

This last scenario seems highly improbable, as the Egyptian military would hardly want to see the man it put under house arrest—Mohamed Mursi—back in power to presumably face his wrath. Nor do most regional states seem to believe that Mursi is coming back anytime soon. Just look at the reaction of the GCC states, especially Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, which have just collectively announced billions of dollars of much-needed financial aid to Egypt’s transitional authorities.

While the GCC states have been vocal in expressing pleasure at the fall of the Mursi government, Iran has been far more circumspect in its reaction. This is despite the fact that Iran was arguably the first major country to welcome the fall of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, and had high hopes for Tehran–Cairo ties with the coming of the Muslim Brothers.

More importantly, while the Iranians have not shown any delight at Mursi’s fall, they are nonetheless keeping the door open to his potential successors. Recent statements from Tehran certainly suggest that all options are being weighed as far the future path is concerned.

Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi has referred to the Egyptian military as a “patriotic” force that will guide the nation out of the storm. This can only be seen as peace offering to the Egyptian military, given last week’s anger in Cairo after suggestions of meddling Iranian statements about events in Egypt. Salehi was due to visit Turkey on July 12 to discuss events in Egypt, an indication that Tehran also would like to carve a role for itself as a regional broker that can be part of the solution to the Egyptian crisis. Such regional Iranian maneuverings are naturally also aimed at balancing the GCC's influence in the Egyptian transition.

What is paramount for Tehran is that relations do not go back to the rock-bottom state that characterized Tehran–Cairo ties during the last years of the Mubarak regime. Anything above that would therefore be a win for Tehran in an age where Iran’s reputation and agenda are both under intense scrutiny and greatly questioned in many Arab capitals.

One reality is undeniable, and that is that Iran’s experience with the Egyptian Muslim Brothers over the course of the last two years has largely been one big disappointment. The Muslim Brothers were never the soul mate the Iranian authorities had hoped or advertised it would be.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, had initially pointed to the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood as the most important manifestation of an era of “Islamic Awakening,” a phrase Tehran chose to describe the Arab revolutions. Once in power, Mursi’s government engaged in what in Tehran was angrily interpreted as pandering to a sectarian and anti-Shi'a agenda, a trend that was exacerbated by the civil war in Syria.

Two key realities stand out. Over the last year, despite Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s high-profile visit to Cairo, Iran and Egypt made no tangible progress toward reestablishing diplomatic relations, which were broken off in 1980. Over the course of the post-Mubarak era, Iran’s Shi'a theocracy and the Sunni Islamists of Muslim Brotherhood have thus far failed to reach an understanding.

That said, a political alternative in Cairo that is secular, pro-Western and anti-Iran all at the same time—as was the case under Hosni Mubarak—would hardly please the authorities in Tehran. But Egypt is too big for Iran to ignore or to cut its Egyptian loses and run. That is exactly why Tehran is keeping its options open and hoping for the best among what at the moment amount to a bad set of possibilities facing Tehran.


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