As Iran loses ground in Syria, Lebanon, and the Gaza Strip, expect Tehran to try to shore up its ability to influence the Middle East in the most unlikely of places: Egypt.
Over the last few years there have been numerous signs that Cairo and Tehran were making tentative steps toward changing their previously rather frosty relations, including the transit of Iranian warships through the Suez Canal, open discussion among decision-makers in both countries about normalizing ties, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s August 2012 visit to Iran for a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement, and his Iranian counterpart’s reciprocal visit to Cairo this past February for the summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. In addition, the current cause célèbre between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis of the al Nour party concerns whether to allow Iranian tourists to visit Egypt. The Brothers are for it, while the Salafis, fearing Shi’a proselytizing, are vehemently opposed.
These are tentative, largely symbolic steps most of which can be explained away—at least on the Egyptian end—by the domestic political need for Morsi and the Brotherhood to demonstrate that their “independent” foreign policy is more than just a talking point. Although the Iranians are likely interested in something much bigger than symbolism, the Egyptians may, out of a combination of desperation and shrewdness, take Tehran up on whatever overtures the Iranians have forthcoming.
Egypt and Iran seem more likely to engage in strategic competition rather than strategic cooperation. Egypt is a large, Arab, predominantly Sunni country. Egyptians are inheritors of a great civilization and there is a prevailing sense that given this history, its powerful army, long record as a center of culture and knowledge, as well as its strategic importance to the big powers, Umm al Dunya or “Mother of the World”—as Egyptians lovingly refer to their country—is naturally endowed with the assets that make it the leader of the Middle East. For its part, Iran is a large, predominantly Persian and Shi’a majority country. It is also an inheritor of a great civilization and Iranian foreign policy has long maintained that Tehran’s proper role is that of the region’s leader. Moreover, there does not seem to be much love lost between the Egyptians and Iranians. When Morsi was in Tehran, he was critical of his hosts’ support for the Assad regime and Ahmadinejad was assaulted with a shoe when he visited Cairo.
For all these reasons, rivalry and mistrust should mark ties between Cairo and Tehran, but at present, circumstances are aligning that provide opportunity and motive to make relations less competitive and perhaps decidedly more cooperative:
1. Both Egypt and Iran are desperate, albeit in different ways. The Egyptians need cash and fuel from anyone who is willing to give it to them. Despite the fact that the Obama administration and the European Union have been saying for months that sanctions on Iran have “begun to bite,” the Iranians have both. Why wouldn’t Egypt respond to overtures from Iran, offering to relieve the financial and economic pressures that are threatening the Brotherhood’s project? Tehran’s assistance would no doubt help the Egyptians cope. Yet the Egyptians probably would not even need to take a single Iranian rial. Just the fact that Cairo was contemplating accepting aid from the Islamic Republic might encourage the Saudis, who have heretofore been tight-fisted with the Egyptians, to provide some relief.
At the same time Tehran is facing the prospect of a major strategic setback in the Levant. If Bashar al Assad finally succumbs to the civil war that is engulfing his country, Iran’s position in both Syria and Lebanon will become significantly more complicated. Under these circumstances, it is plausible that Tehran might want to exploit Cairo’s interest in improving bilateral relations and its precarious economic situation as a hedge against potential losses elsewhere.
2. Tweaking Washington, Jerusalem, and Riyadh. The Iranians and Egyptians both have an interest in signaling to the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia that they will not be bought, intimidated, or manipulated. It was for these reasons that August of last year President Morsi proposed to include Iran (along with Turkey and Saudi Arabia) in a regional contact group on Syria. The Egyptian president was signaling to Washington, Jerusalem, and Riyadh that no matter what dire straights Egypt might find itself in at home, Cairo still intended on being a regional player with an independent view of how to fix the region’s most pressing problems. Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt was never as obliging of the United States as the revolutionary mythology of his long rule suggests, but that is less important than the perception that he willingly did Washington’s bidding in the region for three decades without exception; hence the importance the Brotherhood attaches to foreign policy independence and there is no better way for Egypt’s new leaders to prove that they will not be lackeys of the United States (and by association, Israel) than a dalliance with the Iranians.
The Iranians have never been shy about poking Americans, Israelis, and Saudis in the eye, but establishing cooperative ties with the Egyptians would be a geo-strategic trifecta. It would go a long way toward demonstrating, especially to the Saudis, that whatever trouble Iran is having in Syria, Tehran can still be influential in the Middle East—and in Egypt’s case, in the heart of the Arab world. There is a belief in the Persian Gulf and Turkey, not to mention influential public opinion in the United States, that Iran without the Assad family is out of options. The Iranians will no doubt be looking for ways to prove this notion wrong and opening up to Egypt is likely part of the plan.
3. Revolutionaries of a Different Feather Flock Together. Neither Egypt nor Iran is a status quo power in the region. Cairo and Tehran may want different things, but they do share one common goal—reducing as much as possible the exercise of American power in the region. This is why the Muslim Brotherhood talks about holding the United States “accountable” for its actions in the region and establishing a “partnership of equals.” Given the very real asymmetries of power between Washington and Cairo, the Egyptians are likely to be frustrated in these goals, but it suggests an area of common interest with the Iranians. Under the Shah and Hosni Mubarak, Iran and Egypt—in different eras—were leading players in a regional political order that made it relatively easier for Washington to pursue its regional goals. And while the changes in Iran in 1979 were far more dramatic than what has happened in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, like Iran’s clerical establishment, is not likely to accommodate themselves comfortably to American power.
The Iranians have a lot less to lose than Egypt and are thus more likely to pursue Cairo than are the Egyptians to go after upgraded and expanded relations with Tehran. The shoe throwing incident in February and the Salafist opposition to Iranian tourism in Egypt indicates that at least among some Egyptians, Iran is not all that popular. This is not 2006 when, in the aftermath of the Israel-Hizballah war, the Iranian leader was popular in Egypt. President Morsi would have to weigh whether foreign policy independence in the form of better ties with Iran is worth the domestic political fallout—something he can ill-afford if recent polling is accurate. In addition, it is hard to imagine how the Egyptians would go about busting sanctions on Iran without eliciting the ire of both the United States and Europe. Then again it is not like Washington has been generous with Egypt and Morsi may reason that he can benefit from a spat with the United States given the role that America played in supporting Hosni Mubarak and the importance of national dignity and empowerment as animating factors in the January 25 uprising.
Hooking up with the Iranians does fit in with Egypt’s overall “positive neutralist” approach, which in the 1950s was Nasser’s way of playing powers off of one another in an effort to extract resources from them. Morsi seems to be playing a similar game, but may overplay his hand when it comes to the Iranians. Other than some quick cash and subsidized energy, there is nothing that Tehran can offer Cairo that will, in the long run, be to Egypt’s benefit.