Foreign Policy Blogs

Iran’s Egyptian Paradigm


Egypt’s recent political shifts are likely to have mixed mixed implications for Iran.

Egypt’s turmoil that was marked with the overthrow of President Mohammed Mursi on July 3, 2013 is unsettling for the volatile and war-weary and Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region. Iran’s rival, Saudi Arabia has been cheering for recent events in Cairo as the overthrow of Mursi was made possible with the collaborative intervention of the Egyptian military and the Saudi-backed Salafist party of Al-Nour. In fact, in order to counter Qatar’s substantial financial backing of the Muslim Brotherhood and Mursi, Saudi Arabia has pledged to transfer $2 billion of aid to the post-Mursi Egypt; UAE has also sent in $3 billion of aid to Egypt’s central bank in light of the recent developments. While things appear a bit clearer for Saudi Arabia, Iran, the Shiite powerhouse of the region, has to wait and see how much of this political shift in Egypt will notably impact its regional endeavors, if at all.

As far as speculations go, the current turmoil in Egypt and its ultimate outcome are likely to have mixed implications for Iran.

On one hand, the coming together of the Saudi-backed Salafists and the U.S.-backed Egyptian military is a potential threat to Iran’s overarching regional goals. But, in some ways Iran is also arguably more accustomed to Egypt as a rival than a friend given the two countries’ decades of animosity which lasted until the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

On the other hand, Iran’s close friend, Mohamed ElBaradei, the former Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), is selected as the acting Vice President for foreign relations of post-Mursi interim government. ElBaradei took on a moderate and rather amicable approach concerning Iran’s nuclear program during his rein at the IAEA (1997-2009). While a desirable outcome for Iran, ElBaradei’s new position has triggered controversies and reactions domestically and in the region. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has, for instance, refused to speak with ElBaradei as an Egyptian official, stating on July 19, 2013 that he was not elected to the post, but “selected by the coup administration”. Therefore, ElBaradei’s future influence in Egyptian and regional politics is yet to be seen.

There remain ambiguities over the ultimate implications of Egypt’s political reshuffling for the region, and in particular for Iran. Nevertheless, while waiting to define a clear strategic roadmap in regards to Egypt, Iranian officials have not remained silent. In fact, Tehran has made multiple statements, some less diplomatic than others, perhaps with the goal of not losing the grounds to other leading regional voices. Iranian officials have called the overthrow of the Egyptian President Mursi on July 3, 2013 improper and the result of foreign intervention conducted by the country’s national military. Iran’s statements about Egypt have caused reactions in Cairo, asking Tehran not to intervene in its domestic affairs.

Calling the Egyptian military intervention the result of strong interference of the “Westerners” and the “Zionist regime” (Israel), the Foreign Ministry spokesperson of the Islamic Republic, on July 8, 2013 Abbas Araghchi criticized Mursi for his inefficiency and mismanagement. Meanwhile, commending Egyptians for standing up for their own fate and the Egyptian army for protecting its soil, Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran’s Foreign Minister, condemned the killing of innocent people during the recent events.

In addition, Allaeddin Boroujerdi, Chairman of the Majles’ (parliament) National Security and Foreign Policy Committee in a speech on July 9, 2013 characterized post-revolutionary Egypt’s failure as a tactical mistake by the Muslim Brotherhood in “concluding the revolution only by toppling Hosni Mubarak in 2011”. He went on to state that while Iran will not interfere in the internal affairs of Egypt, Tehran is ready to use “capacity” to “create calm” in Egypt. Boroujerdi warned against the United States’ and Israel’s interests in the current Egyptian crisis, stating the Egyptians “must not give permission to provide the ground for extremist and well-known elements”, if they do not want their country to move toward “unfortunate events like those in Syria and Iraq”.

In a less diplomatic statement, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, Tehran’s firebrand Friday Prayer Leader, stated “The people of Egypt are Muslim and they love Islam”. But, he continued, “The people who came to sit on the seat of power through the Islamic Awakening performed so poorly that they themselves prepared the grounds for a coup”.

Aside from Iran’s typical rhetoric, its continuous references to national unity and Islam as well as emphasizing anti-Western and ant-Israeli statements, what is it really about Egypt’s political shifts that is disconcerting to Tehran?

It is true that Cairo and Tehran could not have become true friends and allies even in the wake of the Egyptian revolution and the presidency of Muslim Brotherhood’s Mursi. Their fundamental disagreements over Syria, Israel and the U.S. would have never allowed for smooth relations between the two countries.

However, both President Mursi and President Ahmadinejad seemed to utilize one another rather effectively in staging diplomatic visits and limited, but amicable, affairs. Realizing their limited influence on each other, Tehran and Cairo simply utilized their newly established and limited friendship as a symbolic gesture to gauge the effectiveness of their regional leadership in the wake of the Arab uprisings and to intimidate Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Israel.  Cairo needed to create at least an illusion of political independence, and Tehran’s controversial presence in the region made it an ideal candidate for Mursi to appear independent. In turn, Tehran needed Cairo to display a regional leadership that is geographically wide and that goes beyond the Shiite world. In short, President Mursi and President Ahmadinejad had agreed to disagree for the sake of staging a friendship that could help to portray them as strong regional leaders.

Moreover, despite its worsening economic and political state, Cairo was naturally more predictable with a government in place, which would allow Iran to think of Egypt as a constant as opposed to a variable in its mid to long term regional strategies. While not the best kind of permanency, Iran would prefer Egypt to be led by Muslim Brotherhood than by the Salafist Al-Nour Party or the secular Egyptian military.

Now, things are different in Egypt. Firstly, the political equation has arguably become more complex. If alliances are sustainably formed, then the country will be led by the U.S.-backed Egyptian military and the Saudi-backed Al-Nour Party as well as other key elements such as ElBaradei and certain segments of the Muslim Brotherhood. If alliances are not successfully formed, turmoil will continue.

But, unlike the Syrian crisis, in this turmoil Iran can play minimal role given its limited influence in Egyptian politics. Secondly, Egypt will not be another Syria given regional powers such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Israel as well as international powers such as the U.S. have vested interests in Egypt’s stability. Therefore, in case of political vacuum and ongoing chaos, Iran would have a small role and influence compared to the big powers with vested interests in Egyptian politics.

Moreover, at this point Iran cannot divert its resources away from Syria any time soon, where Bashar Al-Assad’s survival depends heavily on Tehran’s continuous support. Therefore, Boroujerdi’s claim that Iran is ready to use “capacity” to “create calm”, or rather further turmoil in Egypt is likely an overestimation of Tehran’s resources that are already hard at work in Syria.

Above all, Iran is facing a political transition and some level of uncertainty as President Ahmadinejad is on his way out and the newly elected moderate Hassan Rouhani is soon to replace him. Even though Tehran’s foreign policy strategies are rarely defined by the president, and are often set by the Supreme Leader, a new president and his moderate stances can certainly bring along nuanced shifts in Tehran’s approach in the region and beyond. Nevertheless, the particularities of President Rouhani’s approach, his degree of authority and the dynamics of his cabinet are yet to be seen.

Given all the aforementioned intricacies at play, Iran seems to be doing the best it can without taking definitive stances against one side or the other in Egypt and by focusing its rhetoric mainly against external forces. To maintain a certain level of status quo without appearing too hesitant, Tehran has reverted to its usual vague, aggressive and revolutionary rhetoric as well as the same old anti-Western and anti-Israeli statements while waiting for a more definitive outcome to emerge. In all of this, Tehran also seems to maintain a balance in appraising the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian military, as Iranian officials know well that either one or both are likely to play a key role in the future of Egypt.




Azadeh Pourzand
Azadeh Pourzand

Currently a program manager at an international development institution focusing on the Middle East-North Africa region, Azadeh holds a Masters in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government (HKS) and an MBA from the Nyenrode Business Universiteit.

The editor-in-chief of Women's Policy Journal at Harvard Kennedy School of Government in 2009-2010, her writings have appeared in places such as International Herald Tribune, CNN International and the Huffington Post.

Born and raised in Iran, in the past years she has worked and studied in the US, Mexico, Argentina, Bangladesh, China and the Netherlands and India. While in India, she worked at a Mumbai-based foreign policy think-tank, Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations, where she co-authored a comprehensive policy paper that explored India's view of the Arab uprisings.

Azadeh is the founder and president of a start-up organization (The Siamak Pourzand Foundation), promoting freedom of expression for artists, writers, journalists and creative minds in Iran and beyond.

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