Egypt Looks to Restore Iran Ties In Seeking an End to Syria Crisis

Article Summary
Egypt, after years of frosty relations with Iran, has been reconsidering those ties ever since the election of President Mohammed Morsi. Hassan Abou Taleb looks at Egypt's attempts to grow closer to Iran and enlist its help in finding a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis.

Former Egyptian foreign minister Nabil Elaraby had announced in March 2011 that Iran is not an enemy of Egypt, while adding that having friendly relations with Tehran are a normal thing. This short statement was proof that Egypt, back then, sought to change its previous diplomatic approach with Iran — i.e., distancing itself from Iran — which had been endorsed for the past three decades.

However, the statement was not translated into action. This inaction was explained at the time by claims that such a step would require the presence of a parliament, which did not exist. This account did not deny the existence of reservations on the part of the ruling authorities over the possibility of total openness with Iran. Those in power wanted to calculate the probable gains and cost of such a decision.

Prior to the January revolution, official circles in Egypt had a number of reservations regarding the restoration of diplomatic ties with Iran. 

The first one centered around the fact that Iran, under Ayatollah Ali Khomeini, was the one that made the decision to cut ties with Egypt to protest the signing of the Camp David Accords in 1978. Restoring ties would require that Tehran admit that it was the one that initially cut ties with Egypt, which is something that the former does not accept.

The second aspect: Following Imam Khomeini’s death, two trends pertaining to Egypt emerged within decision-making circles in Iran. 

One of them is a conservative extremist trend that rejects any step toward convergence with Cairo unless it annuls its agreement with Israel and accepts Iran’s proposals pertaining to a possible confrontation with the United States and Israel. In other words, it demands Egypt change the basis of its foreign policy and replace it with an Iranian one. It goes without saying that Cairo completely rejected this demand. 

The other trend is a reformist one that seeks to build bridges in case of international or regional isolation, which has been mounting on a daily basis due to Tehran’s relationship with the West.

The reformists aspired to restore relations with Egypt without having to conform to the conditions of the conservatives under the rule of former Iranian President Mohammed Khatemi. 

The era of Khatemi witnessed talks between Egypt and Iran through intermediary bodies and intellectual and religious figures from both countries. However, these talks were not on the official level. Moreover, these intense and frequent talks failed to overcome the obstacles placed by the conservatives to prevent the restoration of ties with Egypt, including demands that Cairo overturn its international agreements.

In fact, the Egyptian government prior to the revolution was not enthusiastic about mending broken ties with Iran for a variety of reasons.

The first reason relates to Iran’s offensive approach that steered it toward engaging in political and religious battles. This includes Iran’s efforts to bring an end to Syria’s cooperation with the Arab states in order to serve its own strategic interests related to its conflict with the West and the Gulf states. Egypt considers the Gulf region to be a pivotal player in maintaining its national security. 

This is in addition to the rifts within the government under Khatemi’s rule, which were then followed by the dominant offensive conservative vision under the rule of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Cairo considered both cases — despite their differences — to be improper atmospheres for the restoration of diplomatic ties.

Back then, Egypt decided that the only way they would restore diplomatic relations with Iran was if both the reformists and conservatives were in agreement over the issue. Otherwise, this issue would lead to an internal conflict in Iran and could be used to pressure Egypt into changing its stance pertaining to the Palestinian cause.

This is in addition to Egypt’s security and religious concerns, stemming from the likely influx of religious tourism from Iran in case diplomatic ties are completely restored.

Egypt believed that religious tourism would have led to the spread of Shiite beliefs and behavior among the Egyptian public, who have limited knowledge about different religious cultures.

Changing formulas

However, the “non-official Egypt” — namely the political and intellectual elite — had another stance regarding ties with Iran. Their stance called for the complete restoration of ties, for they believed that such a step would change the political and strategic balances in the region to benefit Arab issues, put pressure on Israel, and support the Palestinian cause.

The reluctance of the official authorities [to restore ties with Iran] is due to US and Israeli pressure, and is a main reason behind Egypt losing its independent regional role.

Following the revolution, a number of new diplomatic trends emerged in Egypt. Most prominently the new approach adopted by elected President Mohammed Morsi, in an attempt to reclaim Egypt’s active and influential role in the region. 

Morsi was attempting to invest in the achievements of the revolution on a regional and international level. Openness to Iran is one of the most important routes; however, Morsi has not yet decided to restore ties with Iran.

Iran is part of the crisis

What is ironic is that Morsi and two of his advisers deemed Iran part of the solution to the Syrian crisis. This goes against the views of international and regional players, which consider Iran to be a key factor in the crisis and a main reason behind the escalating bloodshed.

The Egyptian initiative for Syria called for the participation of Iran, Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia to end the tragedy in Syria, since these four pillars are the most capable players in the Arab and Islamic world. [Egypt] then clarified that it was an attempt to attract Iran towards a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis.

This solution entails accepting an end to President Bashar al-Assad’s rule and sponsoring a Syrian dialogue that would lead to an end to the violence and bloodshed. It also seeks to gradually guide the country to a new political regime approved by Syrians and sponsored by the four aforementioned countries.

Some have claimed that the Egyptian initiative seeks to reassure Tehran that its interests in Syria will not be affected after Assad is gone.

During the first meeting between the representatives of the four countries in Cairo, Tehran did not deliver the desired response. Furthermore, the Saudi foreign minister did not attend the group’s second meeting, something that was explained by the Saudi press as a sign of Riyadh’s dissatisfaction over considering Iran to be both an adversary and a mediator concerning the Syrian crisis.

This new Egyptian approach towards Iran was part of the plan to solve the Syrian crisis. It sought to engage the aforementioned four pillars, an approach that was widely accepted by the pre and post-revolution elites.

What is intriguing is that the term “four pillars” does not only indicate a number but also a religious connotation. The four pillars in Shiite doctrine are the four companions of Imam Ali Bin Abi-Taleb [the fourth and final of the rightly-guided Caliphs], namely Ammar Bin-Yassir, Al-Miqdad Bin-Amr, Salman al-Farisis and Abu-Dhur al-Ghafari.  It has been claimed that they refused to vow allegiance to Abu-Bakir [Shiites reportedly believe that Abu-Bakir conspired to take over leadership of the Muslim nation after the death of the Prophet Muhammad — a coup d'état against Ali Bin-Abi Taleb], which is the main reason they are respected by the Shiites. 

However, according to the famous study of Abi-al-Hasan al-Nidwi, the Sunnis believe that the four pillars are praying, alms-giving, fasting and pilgrimage, i.e., the solid foundations of Islam.

Let us assume that Morsi’s advisers were knowledgeable about these religious and political connotations and that they were enthusiastic to market them as an Arab and regional ground-breakers.

Yet, these advisers failed to answer a pivotal question regarding Egypt’s political ability to persuade Iran to transform from an element of the crisis into one that serves to solve the Syrian crisis and other issues related to the security and stability of the Gulf.

There is a statement attributed to one of President Morsi’s advisers — one with a background in political science — that says that Egypt’s ability to persuade Iran is marked by what Tehran will get in return, i.e., the restoration of diplomatic relations with Egypt. This will also entail Egypt acting as a mediator between Iran and the Gulf states.

He continued, saying that the idea of transforming the Iranian role in the Syrian crisis into one that serves a peaceful solution was not the focus of a comprehensive study based on an understanding of Iran’s political mechanism, its grand strategies and Syria’s role in them.

The current proposal, which is based on a trade-off of positions, seems to be naive and lacking political maturity. This is especially true since it is related to changing the stances of other countries that have deep-rooted strategies that seek to achieve their own interests. 

Aside from the Shiite and Sunni religious and moral implications regarding the four pillars, the current state of Iranian politics affirms that it still maintains the same characteristics of the past four decades. We are mainly referring to its offensive nature, strong beliefs, absence of transparency over its nuclear program and its great influence in Iraq.

There is no sign of an upcoming solution to the tense relationship between Iran and the West; rather, there are signs of a possible fierce military confrontation between Israel and Iran that will ignite the entire world.

We know for a fact that there are no more reformists in Iran. They were replaced by a conservative movement that controls everything. This movement believes that the Egyptian revolution was influenced by the Islamic revolution of Khomeini, and they refuse to recognize the individual nature of the Egyptian revolution.

The question remains, should we continue to anticipate a change in Iran’s position regarding Syria, as expected by Egypt?

Endings are not necessary attached to the beginnings, thus, it is sensible to keep on trying and exerting pressure to attain a change in Iran’s policy on Syria, a change that goes hand in hand with the legitimate demands of the Syrian people and their great sacrifices.

But it is also wise to expect the worst and prepare for an alternative plan to the one that did not fully take into consideration the political nature of Iran and both its apparent and hidden goals toward the Arabs situated all the way from the Atlantic Ocean to the Persian Gulf.

Found in: syrian-iranian relations, syria, iran, egypt

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