The invitation extended to attend the swearing-in ceremony of the newly elected Egyptian president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in Cairo on Sunday didn’t exactly come out of the blue. Tehran got five days to mull over the invitation and it decided to depute Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian, FO’s topmost diplomat on Arab affairs, to represent President Hassan Rouhani who was on a visit to Turkey. It’s been a measured response in diplomatic terms — appropriate but not effusive,
Iran’s ‘course correction’ on Egypt has been under way for some time — putting distance incrementally vis-a-vis the Muslim Brotherhood. This has been Iranian pragmatism at its best display. The Brothers were never quite Iran’s cup of tea, but when Mohammed Morsi won the presidency in the full flourish of the Arab Spring (Iran calls it ‘islamic Awakening’), Tehran felt obliged to warmly welcome it.
Indeed, Morsi took some tentative steps to open up Egypt’s ties with Iran, which had been in a state of deep freeze for decades ever since Cairo offered asylum to the Shah. Iran would have welcomed a must faster pace of the ‘thaw’ under Morsi, but resigned itself to accepting what was on offer from Cairo. The high water mark was Morsi’s visit to Cairo to attend the non-aligned summit.
Then came Morsi’s fall in a coup sponsored by Saudi Arabia, Iran’s rival. The military junta turned to Riyadh for sustenance and that precluded any further Egyptian dalliance with Tehran. The junta’s repression of the Brothers followed and Iran became a mute witness of the ‘Awakening’ being snuffed out cruelly in Cairo.
Some Iranian rhetoric inevitably followed, but under cloud cover, Tehran came to accept that a comeback by the Brothers is not on the cards in a conceivable future and a need arises to deal with the new ground realities.
Thus began the invisible ‘course correction’. It is apparent that the ‘course correction’ has cruised long enough. Tehran gave full-bodied support to the election that has been stage-managed in Cairo a week ago to legitimize Sisi as the new pharaoah. The Iranian Foreign Ministry said last Sunday when Sisi’s victory was proclaimed in Cairo:
“Iran always and in principle considers holding elections as the legitimate right of the people to determine their fate and a step for consolidating democracy. There is no doubt that continuing this trend through the comprehensive partnership of all political parties and currents, specially the real representatives of all Egyptians, will not only be helpful in completing the process of forming national sovereignty, solidarity and unity of Egypt’s civil society, but also leaves its effects on the reinvigoration of stability, security and promotion of the regional status of that country.”
Amir Abdollahian made some big statements while in Cairo this weekend, signifying in unmistakeable terms Tehran’s Iranian overture to Sisi. He underscored Tehran’s eagerness to move forward with Sisi — “We in Iran have assumed that the election in Egypt is a step forward and believe that Egypt won’t return to its previous conditions.” He stressed Iran’s role as a regional power and how its stability and security has implications for the region as a whole.
At a meeting with Sisi, Iran’s DFM stressed Tehran’s “readiness to strengthen cooperation and ties”, while beyond the strictly bilateral plane, he called for an Active role by Egypt in regional politics. Sisi’s stance on a variety of regional issues will be of utmost importance to Tehran — Syria, in particular, where Sisi has delinked Egypt from the Saudi-sponsored ‘regime change’ agenda.
Again, the ascendancy of the extremist Islamic groups in Iraq becomes a shared concern for Iran, Turkey and Egypt. Iran can draw satisfaction, again, that Sisi will unlikely pilot Egypt back for a plunge into the Yemeni cauldron.
However, the highlight of Amir Abdollahian’s stay in Cairo was his meeting with the Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud. He later said the meeting was “constructive”. (here). The meeting is a diplomatic scoop for Tehran.
Riyadh has been flooding Tehran with invitations to senior Iranian officials to visit Saudi Arabia (including Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif and Expediency Council chairman Hashemi Rafsanjani), but no visit has been worked out so far. Meanwhile, Tehran has been focusing on building up its ties with Saudi Arabia’s GCC partners as well as Turkey and Egypt.
What does this rapid flow of events add up to? Clearly, in a nutshell, Middle Eastern politics is entering an altogether new era with Iran’s integration with the West. In sum, intra-regional politics has surged to the centre stage.
There was a time when the US ensured that Egypt and Iran didn’t draw close together. From all appearance, the US’ influence has waned on the Nile banks. On the other hand, US diplomacy may be acquiring greater flexibility.
The US’ bilateral talks with Iran this week in Geneva have reverberated all over the Middle East, including in Cairo. Meanwhile, the ‘Obama Doctrine’ is also at work. Nothing brings this out more vividly than that the Obama administration is quietly fostering a Saudi-Iranian normalization.
With a successful visit by Rouhani to Ankara and the warming up of Iran-Egypt ties, it is about time Tehran gets around to mending relations with Riyadh. Conceivably, Amir Abdollahian’s meeting in Cairo with the Saudi Crown Prince aimed at preparing the ground for a pathbreaking visit by a senior Iranian official to Riyadh. To my mind, the Iranian-Saudi ‘thaw’ is on the cards, finally. The Middle Eastern politics is tiptoeing toward a paradigm shift.
– June 12, 2014