After the victory of the Egyptian revolution in 2011, there has been increased talk in academic circles about the emergence of a new triangle in the Middle East that includes Egypt, Turkey and Iran. This is because of the historical ties among the three parties, their traditionally strong central governments, and their historical roles in the Middle East. This concept of the Greater Middle East differs from that of the neo-conservatives. In the former, the Middle East’s security and harmony rests on the cooperation among the three main countries Egypt, Iran and Turkey, for serving their interests and defending the security of this part of the world. Although some Middle Eastern intellectuals and philosophers showed enthusiasm for that triangle over the past decades, the historical experience shows that it has never actually happened in reality.
In the year 1513, the ruler of Egypt, Qansouh Ghouri, allied with Iran to counter the threat posed by Ottoman Turkey. There was later a Turkish-Iranian convergence under a Western umbrella to face the Arab liberation movement led by Egypt in the 1950s and 1960s. Today, we see an alliance emerging between Egypt and Turkey to face Iran after the Arab Spring, despite the relative improvement in relations between Cairo and Tehran. In short, in the past five centuries the Middle East has not seen an alliance among those three countries. On the one hand, such a triangle will threaten the global balance of power, not just the region. On the other hand, the bilateral relations among the three countries have seen a lot of ups and downs as dictated by national calculations, not by the value for the existence of such a triangle.
In parallel, the Middle East has been witnessing a decline in US influence for the past few years. The indicators point that the decline will continue, with US attention turning more and more toward Asia in order to confront China. The American retreat from the region is leaving behind a vacuum that rising regional powers, like Iran and Turkey, will seek to fill. As Turkey and Iran compete throughout the region — from Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and even Gaza — it seems that Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood has become a tool used by the Turks and the Iranians to compete in the Middle East.
Therefore, the regional balance of power will tend toward the party (Iran or Turkey) that succeeds in weaving a network of relations with Cairo, whereby the latter is used as support to confront the other party. According to that theory, as long as Egypt does not have a national agenda, as has been the case in recent months, and as long as Egypt’s political leadership keeps lacking political imagination, Egypt will be transformed from an equal player — as is supposed to be the case according to the triangle theory — into an arena of conflict between Turkey and Iran on who will lead the region. The theory compares the models posed by both Iran and Turkey on the one side with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood model in order to clarify the differences between those models and to try to predict with whom Egypt will ally in the future, Iran or Turkey?
The Muslim Brotherhood’s experience and the Iranian experience
Despite the similarities between the Muslim Brotherhood’s experience and the Iranian experience, a comparison is not appropriate because of seven basic differences:
1. Although it is true that both the Iranian and Egyptian revolutions were not conducted by the Islamic movement alone, in Iran Imam Ruhollah Khomeini was the revolutionaries’ main reference, be they within or without the Islamic current, and that remained to be the case until the fall of the shah. Then the disagreements started and worsened in the first year after the Iranian revolution’s victory. But in the Egyptian case, no Muslim Brotherhood leader acted as an inspiration or a spiritual guide for the revolution that stayed in Tahrir Square from Jan. 25 to Feb. 11, 2011.
When the Iranian revolution triumphed, Khomeini had the moral authority to appoint a government headed by the engineer Mehdi Bazargan, the representative of the national liberal current, without an election or a referendum. Yet in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood decided to join the revolution only after the Brotherhood realized that the revolution was about to win due to the steadfastness of the demonstrators and their ability to break the will of the security apparatuses.
2. The deals struck between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) organized the relationship between the two parties throughout the transition period, contrary to what the youth and revolutionary forces wanted. So SCAF wrote a new election law that opened the door for the rise of the Islamists by allowing them to win the majority of parliamentary seats in 2011, in return for guarantees concerning the military’s roles and economic gains, which remain in force until now.
What happened in Iran was different. Khomeini proceeded to liquidate Iran’s military chiefs. Until today, the Islamic regime has not forgotten that the Iranian army stood by the shah. So the new regime established the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, which is an army that is similar to the Soviet Red Army but with Islamic ideology.
3. The Iranian leadership used the blood of the martyrs to establish a new system that is completely disconnected from the shah’s regime. But the case with the Muslim Brotherhood is entirely different, as all four prime ministers since former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down in 2011 until this writing in 2013 belonged to the Mubarak era (Ahmed Shafiq, minister of civil aviation and the last prime minister in the Mubarak era; Essam Sharaf, minister of transportation in the Mubarak era; Kamal Ganzouri, prime minister during the Mubarak era; and current Prime Minister Hisham Kandil, who was the office director for the minister of water resources during the Mubarak era).
4. The Muslim Brotherhood maintained Egypt’s commitments with Turkey and Qatar. That was contrary to what happened in Iran, which did not recognize any regional understanding.
5. The means by which the authority was transferred reveals the nature of the new authority. In the Iranian case, Khomeini settled the matter by a referendum that established a new Iranian constitution of Velayat-e Faqih. But Egypt’s Islamic constitution was achieved by first amending the 1971 constitution; then the Brotherhood maneuvered to establish a Constituent Assembly with an Islamist majority; then, during the second round of the presidential elections, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi promised to restructure the Constituent Assembly to include all of Egypt’s political spectrum. He, however, broke his promise. In the end, an ambiguous constitution was written. The new Egyptian constitution may lead to the establishment of a Sunni Velayat-e Faqih because it opens the door to unelected institutions vetoing legislative decisions, as stipulated in Article 4, and because Article 2 in the old constitution (about Islamic law) was replaced with a similar one at the end of the new constitution, which opened the door for future disagreements.
6. The administration of US President Jimmy Carter did its best to persuade the Iranian army to conduct a coup and end the Iranian revolution. When it failed, the US conducted a military operation that failed to free the American hostages. It is ironic that Carter himself was the US envoy overseeing the Egyptian presidential elections that brought the Muslim Brotherhood and its representative Morsi to power. Carter issued a report endorsing the election. We still remember the image of him presenting his report to Morsi as he stood next to the Muslim Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide, Mohammed Badie, in a very telling scene.
7. The 1979 Iranian Revolution has exhausted the successive American administrations that tried to tame it. Even the intersection of interests of the last decade between Tehran and Washington, whether in Afghanistan or Iraq, was not the result of prior understandings but more of Iranian taking advantage of former US President George W. Bush’s administration’s mistakes. That forced both sides to reduce their footprints on the ground. In contrast, it seems that the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to the seats of power in Egypt and Tunisia in the wake of the Arab Spring was caused by a number of factors, first of which is a prior understanding between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Obama administration. And as the International Monetary Fund rushes to negotiate with Morsi’s administration on how to provide loans, the world’s financial institutions are getting busy engineering economic and financial sanctions on Iran to weaken its bargaining position in the upcoming negotiations with Washington over Iran’s nuclear program. This means that, contrary to Iran’s roles, those of the Muslim Brotherhood are designed to only serve American interests in the region.
The four Iranian considerations
A few days ago, 17 Iranian thinkers and Islamic jurists appealed to Morsi to adopt the “Iranian model” for Egypt. They listed the scientific and cultural achievements of revolutionary Iran. That appeal embodied how Iran thinks about Egypt and the Iranian need to open up to it. The appeal also worried Egyptian forces and regional powers that Egypt may form an alliance with Iran. But a quiet reading of the matter in light of the historical and structural differences between the Egyptian and Iranian experiments indicates that such an alliance is unrealistic. The two experiments are not comparable, as was discussed above. The Egyptian opposition knows that such an alliance is impossible but they are brandishing the Iranian-Egyptian relations as a scare tactic for domestic purposes.
In contrast, given Iran’s superior propaganda skills, Iran is probably aware of the factors that prevent an Egyptian-Iranian alliance from forming. Iran, however, is happy to see the Muslim Brotherhood ruling Egypt for other reasons. One, it allows Iran to mitigate the tense Sunni-Shiite relations with the world’s largest organized Sunni political group, the Muslim Brotherhood. Two, rapprochement with Egypt hampers an Egyptian-Turkish alliance that would help Iran’s opponents. Three, rapprochement with Egypt prevents Iran’s Gulf rivals from mobilizing Egypt in their political and media effort to encircle Iran regionally. Four, Iran believes that the Muslim Brotherhood is ideologically closer to Iran than Egypt’s military establishment or its liberal and leftist parties.
So Iran will continue to try to woo the Muslim Brotherhood by ignoring the latter’s prior understandings as long as Iran can achieve temporary benefits. Iran does not mind diplomatic talk about a joint Iranian-Egyptian-Turkish solution to the Syrian crisis, nor does Iran mind the musings about a new Middle Eastern triangle nor about Iran’s desire to share its scientific expertise with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.
Iran is moving forward with its rapprochement with the Muslim Brotherhood despite its awareness of the large differences between the two sides. But in the current Egyptian reality, Iran does not have a better choice. In the geopolitical sense, Iran seems to be on the losing side of the Arab Spring, which Iran called the Islamic Spring early on. But today, Iran is trying to postpone, or minimize, its losses, at least until the end of its negotiations with the West over its nuclear program and its future regional role.