Middle East

Iran and Egypt: Old Foes, New Competitors

Demonstrators storm the offices of the Muslim Brotherhood's political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, in protest of President Morsi's expansion of powers in Alexandria, Egypt, on Nov. 23. (Photo: Mohamed Hanno, Dreamstime.com)

The recent outburst of violence in Gaza diverted the Western media's attention from Syria. But Iran, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's closest regional ally, has remained focused on Syria. Iran has also continued to provide arms to the Palestinian resistance group Hamas.

Meanwhile, enamored with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi's display of diplomacy, which brought about a fragile ceasefire in Gaza, the Western media cheered the emergence of Egypt as a new regional leader that could help restore a balance in West Asia/the Middle East-North Africa (MENA).

It is indeed possible that Egypt will emerge as a regional leader. But Morsi will face many dilemmas along the way. As long as Egypt's debilitated economy relies on the United States, the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, Cairo will struggle to pursue an independent regional policy that does not favor Israel.

At the same time, Morsi will have to balance the conflicting demands of his party, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Salafists against the Arab secularists. After issuing a decree that allows him to rule above the law, Morsi is currently facing unrest and chaos in Egypt. This affects the scale of his challenges in maintaining legitimacy at home and beyond.

Iran is closely watching every step that its rival Egypt takes in MENA, and making its own moves accordingly. Iran is not used to an Egypt that is an Islamic democracy run by the Muslim Brotherhood. It is instead accustomed to an Egypt that has partnered with Israel and the United States, for which it lost legitimacy in the Arab world. Egypt's rhetoric may have changed after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, but its approach in MENA remains more or less intact.

Iran is engaged in its own pursuit of regional influence. After forcefully silencing the uprisings of the Green Movement in 2009, Iran has moved into a more conservative era, even as it remains focused on influencing the turbulence in MENA. While the United States fought wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran has had a decade to strengthen its influence in the region and mobilize the Shia population throughout West Asia.

Along with its ally Syria, Iran has been Hamas' primary patron over the decades. Although Iran's economy has been crushed as a result of tightened U.S.-led sanctions and miscalculated domestic policies, the Islamic Republic continues to exert influence in the region.

Consistent with Ayatollah Khomeini's call in 1979 to expand the Islamic Revolution throughout the Muslim world, Iran welcomed the Egyptian revolution in 2011. Iran and Egypt did not maintain bilateral relations during Mubarak's regime because of Egypt's participation in the Camp David Accord and the support and refuge it gave to the last shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

A new Egypt run by a likeminded Islamist group would have been desirable for Iran. It could have become Iran's close friend and collaborator, helping Iran gain more legitimacy throughout the Arab and Sunni world. However, once elected, the Muslim Brotherhood's Morsi, instead of embracing Iran's fundamental principles such as Islamic law and support for the Palestinian cause, chose a moderate Islamist role in the region. Egypt has become a friend of the West, dependent on them for economic assistance. Despite some confused fighting in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt does not yet have the capacity to move away from the Camp David Accord and thereby from Israel.

Iran's hopes for improved relations with Egypt were waylaid when Morsi used the Non-Aligned Movement Summit in Tehran in August to openly criticize Assad for his atrocities in Syria. Although this incident damaged the nascent friendship between Iran and Egypt, the two countries have not given up on the prospects of normalized relations in the post-Mubarak era.

This is going to be an uphill process at a time when developments in Syria and Gaza highlight the differences between Iran and Egypt in their pursuit of regional influence. The two countries remain opposed in their stands on Syria. While Russia is a key international supporter of Assad at the United Nations, Iran is essentially his only on-the-ground ally. Iran continues to support Assad's rule, while Egypt is preoccupied with Gaza and the recent chaos at home.

Unlike Egypt, Iran is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, with oil and gas resources. On Nov. 19, Iran said that it would move ahead with the construction of a $10 billion natural gas pipeline passing through Iraq to reach Syria. Iran had announced this plan in July 2011. It was expected to be delayed due to the unrest in Syria, but Iran has decided to launch the project. If implemented, the pipeline will be a major economic step by Iran to keep Assad in power and maintain its influence in Syria.

The recent outburst of violence in Gaza tested the Iran-Egypt equation and its impact in West Asia. Both countries endorse the Palestinian cause, but their approaches vary. Iran gives military assistance to Hamas and asks other kindred countries to do the same. In contrast, Egypt has played the role of a mediator among all parties, while clearly supporting the Palestinian cause. Morsi's diplomacy has resulted in the recent fragile ceasefire supported by the United States. One of Israel's ceasefire conditions is that Iran should stop sending military assistance to Gaza.

Insisting on the Palestinian need to counter Israeli strikes, Iran will continue to arm Hamas. Iran will not compromise on this count only to achieve a closer friendship with Egypt. A Shia Iran has filled the gap of military and material assistance that the Sunni Hamas did not receive from the Arab world in the past.

But things are changing for Hamas. While its two supporters, Iran and Syria, struggle to maintain Assad's rule, Qatar, a Sunni power centre in the Gulf, has stepped up support for Hamas. Reacting to the 2008 conflict in Gaza, Qatar terminated political relations with Israel while remaining economically connected to Tel Aviv. Ever since, Qatar has sought ways to support Hamas as a way to weaken Israel and to minimize the regional influence of a Shia Iran. After breaking ties with Assad, Hamas has moved its headquarters from Syria to Qatar. With the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas has also started receiving more open and diplomatic support from Cairo. For Iran, all this means less influence in the affairs of Hamas, its long-term beneficiary. 

So far, while openly opposing Qatar's "dual role" in serving Israeli needs and claiming support for Hamas, Iran has refrained from making similar statements about Morsi's dual role.

What then are Iran's plans in terms of its relations with Egypt?

Iran and Egypt have become the two most important regional powers in MENA. Saudi Arabia remains active behind the scenes, primarily through Qatar. Turkey is fast losing legitimacy as a regional mediator due to its break with Israel and its open antagonism toward Assad's Syria. In this regional matrix, Iran is not looking for either a smooth victory or a quick failure for Egypt's rise in the region. A strong Egypt implies yet another rival to Iran's influence in the region, but a strong Egypt could also, to some extent, challenge the Qatar-Saudi Arabia-U.S.-Israel belt in the region.

A weak Egypt would mean it continues to depend on the West and Israel, with an economy burdened by foreign loans and assistance. A weak Egypt would also be prone to losing legitimacy in the Arab world for its attempts to please all parties without the ability to make on-the-ground changes in the Palestinian situation. A weak Egypt is likely to eventually return to the times of Mubarak, regarded as a regional foe by Iran.

This time around, though, Iran will not want to entirely lose the prospects of a friendship with a strategically situated country like Egypt.

Despite its economic and political challenges, Iran will remain the key regional player in the foreseeable future. It is too early to call Egypt a regional power capable of overcoming Iran's widespread influence.

Azadeh Pourzand is a senior researcher at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. This article was originally published by Gateway House: gatewayhouse.in.