In this Feb. 22, 2011 file photo, the Iranian navy frigate IS Alvand passes through the Suez Canal at Ismailia, Egypt. Iran once saw the Arab Spring uprisings as an opportunity to spread its influence in states whose autocratic leaders long shunned them.
"Egypt and Iran's Inevitable Courtship"
Op-Ed, Boston Globe
June 28, 2012
Author: Juliette Kayyem, Lecturer in Public Policy
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security
CRITICS OF President Obama and Iran's Revolutionary Guard are rarely in alliance, but it happened this week as Egypt's Mohammed Morsi was declared president. If you haven't heard, Morsi is a leader in the Muslim Brotherhood. Worse, he spent his first day as victor phoning up his friends at Iran's hard-line news agency Fars. Throwing caution to the wind, he publicly pleaded for closer coordination with the mullahs and expressed skepticism about the 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.
Where is Hosni Mubarak when you need him?
The call, as we now know, never happened, though the rumor circulated in the American media for over a day and was given a particularly harsh flavor by those who view November so close in sight: See, this is what happens when Obama supports democracy. The White House was forced to respond to a story that didn't even happen. Admittedly, there are lingering questions about Morsi's independence from the military, Mubarak's continuing legacy in the judiciary, and whether moderates will have a voice in the future of Egypt. But both Morsi and the real Iranian state-run news agency IRNA denied the interview had ever taken place. Maybe that's a relief to everyone, but it doesn't mean such a call will never happen.
Is it really shocking to believe that one day, relatively soon, Morsi's government might be reaching out to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? Is it that surprising to realize Arab leaders have the capacity to think as strategically as American ones?
The reality is that it would be kind of odd if Morsi didn't eventually make overtures to Iran. The thing about nations that have gone through tremendous reform or transition is that they tend to re-evaluate the foreign policy of the past. It would be completely rational for Egypt, as a historical powerhouse in the Middle East, to seek better relations with a close neighbor. Egypt and Iran share a very complicated neighborhood as much as they share a religion.
Egypt's foreign policy will be much more flexible than when America's interests reigned supreme there. We are not in charge of Egypt's destiny, as arguably we were under Mubarak. So it would be so much better to spend our energy on steering Egypt's policies towards cooperation with America and its allies than denouncing alleged indiscretions.
Here's why: Iran and Egypt are not destined to be very close allies, even if diplomatic relations soften. Those two nations have not had formal ties since 1980, immediately after the Camp David peace treaty was signed and the Iranian Islamic Revolution deposed the Shah. Egypt is just as likely to view Iran's influence (and its support of Syrian President Bashar Assad and his brutal regime) as a threat than as a lure.
Indeed, Iran needs Egypt much more now than Egypt needs Iran and that's probably why the renegade Fars wanted to get the fake story out. Looking around its neighborhood, Egypt does not need to play the mere pawn in Iran's attempts to counter the rising influence of Turkey or Saudi Arabia. And given the United States' continuing financial support of Egypt, Morsi knows that it will literally not pay to make us too angry.
If anything, Morsi has provided cautious optimism that Egypt's global positioning is not completely up for grabs. In his first statements as president-elect, Morsi said he plans to "preserve all national and international agreements," clearly signaling to anxious allies that the peace deal isn't broken.
All that being said, Egypt and Iran may begin to soften their cold stance. This doesn't mean the Arab Spring is a disaster or that America could have steered it any other way. A new Egypt is searching for a role in the world. The best positioning for the United States is to accept that Egypt may do a little speed-dating, make a few calls here or there, but not get too anxious about it.
All the outrage at the alleged call (and the willingness to believe it) suggests there may be a perverse desire to make America abandon Egypt before she has even said goodbye. Isolating Egypt, or more specifically the Muslim Brotherhood, will only mean that Egypt will find solace in other nations' arms, perhaps even breaking bread with the same guys who made up the romance in the first place.
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