By Kayhan Barzegar
Director of the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies, Tehran; Former Belfer Center Research Fellow in the Managing the Atom Project and International Security Program
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s trip to Iran for the Non-Alignment Movement (NAM) summit is also an opportunity to enhance Iranian-Egyptian relations and spark resolution of regional issues.
Iran and the new Egypt are interested in enhancing their regional roles. These two countries along with Saudi Arabia and Turkey are the four power blocks, each with a different approach to increasing their political-security roles in the post–Arab Spring Middle East.
Among these players, increased cooperation between Iran and Egypt is on well-prepared ground. Both countries have experienced a political-ideological revolution and a complete change of regime; they seek to enhance their national power and identity and independence in foreign relations. For both, focusing on independent trends in dealing with the regional crises, battling extremism, promoting indigenous democracy, and advancing economically are significant.
Saudi Arabia and Turkey have different situations. Saudi Arabia is a petro and financial power; its political structure necessitates balancing its dependence on the United States and the West with its national governance based on Wahhabist principles. For instance, post–Arab Spring political-societal and security developments—fostering democracy, human rights, political reforms, the role of youth and middle-class, etc.—has highlighted the divergence between Saudi Arabia and the West. Yet, Saudi Arabia’s policy of sending military troops to suppress the Bahraini opposition had U.S. support.
Turkey’s regional role, given its strong secular bodies (which oppose the country’s intense regional involvement and Islamic world affairs), cultural-ethnic diversity and sensitivities, and economic vulnerability, is currently based on increased relations with the West. With its “Zero Problems” regional policy, Turkey may play an active role in regional issues for a few years.
Yet, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Turkey—an economic power and soft power model for some Arab countries—is not perceived as a regional player. Turkey has had a complimentary role parallel to Iran and Syria and has gradually lost its strategic place in regional affairs.
Iran and Egypt could become significant regional players in the future. Some pessimistic views hold that closer Iranian-Egyptian relations are unlikely in the near future—even with Islamist President Morsi—due to ideological and political differences.
However, increased Iranian-Egyptian relations are based on mutual strategic needs. Iran has attempted to redefine its relations with this new Egypt according to its geopolitical interests and so far has carefully avoided any ideological rivalry with Cairo’s new Muslim Brotherhood Islamist government.
Iran perceives the new Egypt as an independent Islamist state which is an old nation-state and could be an ally, inevitably forming its regional policy according to its domestic politics and public’s political-societal demands. Compared to Saudi Arabia and Turkey, Iran and Egypt’s stands on a Middle East free of nuclear weapons, comprehensive regional security, enhanced regional cooperation for peace, non-interference of the West in regional affairs, etc., are similar. These issues are on the NAM summit agenda in Tehran.
Egypt perceives Iran as an economic and petro power with a long historical identity and Islamic ideological background that could balance Egypt’s relations with Israel, some Arab regimes such as Saudi Arabia, and the United States and the West. Establishing closer relations with Iran could move Egypt from the passivity of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, thus giving it a greater regional role as well as bargaining power. Building a regional coalition with Iran has advocates in different political-security and societal layers of Egypt. Amr Moussa, the former secular foreign minister of Egypt, has spoken of such a coalition’s necessity.
The return of an active Egypt to the region’s political scene could be a turning point for solving regional issues; a potential that also exists in Iran’s regional policy. Potential cooperation between the two countries could start with proposing a joint solution to the Syrian crisis. Presently, the two countries’ policies are distinct. Iran supports Syrian President Basher al-Asad, focusing on a political solution with a national unity government and opposing any foreign military interventions. Egypt supports the removal of Asad while focusing on a political transition and opposing any Western military intervention.
An Iranian-Egyptian solution, however, could initiate a midway approach— accepting the process of political transition by all parties in a first phase and in a second phase, holding a peace conference with the participation all internal, regional, and trans-regional parties in which all issues including the removal of Asad could be decided.
With the new Egypt on board, Iran should take advantage of the 16th NAM Summit and propose a workable regional solution to the Syrian crisis.
This article was originally published in Persian by Tabnak.