Egypt, Iran, and the Middle East’s Evolving Balance of Power

The full extent of the ramifications of the extraordinary developments in Egypt since the beginning of this year — for Egypt itself, for the Middle East, and for the world — will not be clear for some time.  At this juncture, though, it seems virtually certain that post-Mubarak Egypt will have a much more balanced foreign policy than has been the case for several decades.

One of the most striking indicators of the new direction in Egyptian foreign policy has been the strongly positive shift in Cairo’s posture toward the Islamic Republic. The London-based, Palestinian-owned Al-Quds Al-Arabi reported that, after a meeting with the head of the Iranian interest section in Cairo, Foreign Minister Nabil al-Arabi announced that “the ongoing contacts between Cairo and Tehran aimed at normalizing relations, because the ‘Egypt of the revolution’ wanted to establish normal relations with all states around the world.  He then affirmed that he accepted an invitation from the Iranian foreign minister to visit Tehran.”

In an opinion piece, the chief editor of Al-Quds Al-Arabi, ‘Abd al-Bari Atwan, suggested that the foreign policy of Egypt “is adopting the same method as ‘Erdoğan’s Turkey,’ i.e. normalizing relations with all the neighbors based on a ‘zero problems’ policy, while allowing economic and strategic interests to prevail and resorting to dialogue to resolve all the old conflicts.”  (We are grateful to our friends at Conflicts Forum for bringing this piece to our attention.)  Atwan then helpfully summarizes a number of important manifestations of this new Egyptian policy:

“1. The secret visit undertaken by the new Egyptian intelligence chief who succeeded Omar Suleiman, Brigadier General Murad Mawafi, to Syria and his meeting with senior Syrian officials to discuss the areas of security and strategic coordination between the two countries over several files.

2. The authorization granted to several Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip to head to Damascus via Cairo Airport for the first time in months, in a clear breach of the blockade that was imposed by the regime of the ousted president, which would not allow these leaders to leave the Strip blockaded by the Israelis unless the movement signed the Palestinian reconciliation paper.

3. The approval of the passage of Iranian warships through the Suez Canal on their way to the Syrian Latakia port without any harassment, despite the Israeli and American protests.

4. The easing of the tone toward Hezbollah and its allies in Lebanon and its replacement with a friendlier inclination, while moving away from the March 14 alliance headed by former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri.

5. The selection of Sudan as the first destination for new Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, which confirms that the Nile Basin will be a priority for the new era and will surpass all others — especially Gulf security.”

This is heady stuff, in geopolitical terms.  There is a view, advanced by some voices in the region and by a number of American analysts and commentators (including some we normally agree with), that, over time, Egypt will start to compete with Iran for regional influence, acting as an attractive Sunni partner for Syria, Turkey, and others.  In this view, Egypt’s return to something like its traditional role in the Arab and Muslim worlds will give other regional states greater diplomatic “optionality” and, in the long run, diminish the Islamic Republic’s standing.

We think that Egypt under a post-Mubarak political order will be strongly inclined to pursue better relations with the Islamic Republic and other members of the Middle East’s “resistance bloc.”  (This trend is clearly captured by the various points in Atwan’s opinion piece.)  From a strategic perspective, we believe this means that Egypt will add its considerable weight to the Iran-Syria-Turkey (and perhaps Iraq) axis.

Iran and Turkey are both big countries with, under their current leaderships, foreign policy narratives that their own publics and publics across the region find attractive.  (Syria is not nearly as big as Iran or Turkey, of course, but has its own compelling foreign policy narrative.)  Egypt is also big, but, under Sadat and Mubarak, took itself out of the attractive narrative business through collusion with Israel and strategic partnership with the United States.

Now, Egypt is back in play, with considerable potential to develop a more attractive political and foreign policy narrative of its own.  The argument that it might do this in competition with Iran and Turkey is not unreasonable, but we think it is wrong.  It seems to us much more likely that Egypt will develop its political and foreign policy narrative alongside Iran and Turkey.  In this regard, we continue to be struck by the observation Syrian President Bashar al-Assad offered to us last year — that Iran, Syria, and Turkey had all been able to rise together, in terms of their regional influence.  We anticipate that Egypt will be welcome to join that ascendance, and that post-Mubarak Cairo will find it worthwhile to do so.

Of course, senior Egyptian diplomats say that what Egypt is pursuing “are normal relations — basic normal relations, no less, no more” with Iran.  That is exactly what Turkey, under the AKP, has done: pursuing normal relations with regional parties from which it had previously been estranged.  Turkey has not dropped its relations with the United States, pulled out of NATO, or anything of the sort.  It has simply expanded the range of its regional relationships.  But that, as we have seen, can have enormous geopolitical consequences.

And that is precisely what potentially could happen with Egypt’s new foreign policy.  With regard to Egypt’s relations with Israel, senior Egyptian diplomats say those relations will remain more or less the same — but note that “the immediate willingness of Egypt to accommodate Israeli concerns and demands out of the wish to impress the US is, however, off the table.”  If Egypt establishes “basic normal relations” with Iran and other players in the Middle East’s resistance bloc, the geopolitical consequences will be huge, even if Cairo maintains most elements of its relationships with Israel and the United States.

Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow.  Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  She is also Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.  This article is adapted from an article published in The Race for Iran on 7 April 2011 under a Creative Commons license.

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