Iran’s foreign minister on Thursday met with top Egyptian officials during a visit to the Egyptian capital that raises questions about how Egypt, the United States’ biggest Arab ally, might recalibrate its formerly standoffish relationship with Iran, America’s biggest regional foe.
Ali Akbar Salehi met with Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, Prime Minister Hesham Kandil, Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. envoy to Syria, and top officials at al Azhar University, the pre-eminent source of Sunni Islamic thought – a major event, given that Iran is governed by a Shiite Muslim theocracy.
At each stop, Salehi made the case for stronger Egyptian-Iranian relations, suggesting that better ties between the two nations would reduce U.S. involvement in the region. It was a charm offensive that reached out not just to leaders, but also to average Egyptians.
In an interview with “Good Morning Egypt,” a state television program, Salehi said that stronger relations could lead to trade deals and that together the two states could solve regional problems without “international interference,” an oblique reference to the United States.
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“Rapprochement between Cairo and Tehran does not mean being against the interests of others,” Salehi added. “Each side has its own political vision.”
After meeting with Grand Sheikh Ahmed al Tayyeb at al Azhar, Salehi address the Sunni-Shiite divide that has been an increasingly influential division between Muslims. “We all in Iran, whether we are Sunni or Shiite, we love all the Prophet’s family. All Muslims whether they are Sunni or Shiite believe in the same God.”
He also addressed the region’s current greatest sectarian crisis, the civil war in Syria, which pits a largely Sunni rebel force against the government of President Bashar Assad, whose Alawite sect is a Shiite offshoot. Improving relations and eliminating foreign involvement, Salehi said, begins by seeking ways to solve the Syrian crisis together. Neither side offered specifics about their talks on Syria, however.
Iran has never had a better opportunity in Egypt’s recent history to build an alliance. Ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak rejected any relationship with the world’s largest Shiite Islamist state. But Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, has sought a more nuanced relationship, one experts say could set the stage for Egypt become influential in resolving major regional conflicts.
“Since Mubarak’s fall, there has been an opening for Iran. Egypt is now much more open to Iran than any other Arab country,” said Vali Nasr, dean of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and a leading expert on Shiite Islam. “Egypt wants to say they have relations with everyone. I think Egypt is also interested in playing a role in the Syria crisis.”
But Morsi is in no position to drastically change relations with Iran. Instead, he has sought to finesse it, balancing domestic reluctance with his push for a regional Egyptian role. Anti-Shiite sentiment is high among Egyptians, especially in powerful institutions like the military and the intelligence agencies. In addition, most Egyptians, having just had an uprising of their own less than two years ago, support the current efforts to topple Assad, who enjoys Iranian backing.
As a result, Morsi has delivered a mixed message toward Iran. On one hand, his second international trip as president was to Iran in August (his first trip was to China). But once there, at Iran’s invitation, he stunned his hosts during a speech in Tehran by blasting them for supporting Assad, calling the Syrian regime “oppressive.” And while he welcomed Salehi on Thursday, in an interview over the weekend with CNN, Morsi said Assad should be tried for war crimes. He also suggested that if Assad falls, Iran could lose a major regional ally.
"The Syrian people through their revolution and through their movement will, when the bloodshed stops, move to a new stage where they will have an independent parliament and a government of their choosing," Morsi told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. "And then they will decide what they want to do to those who committed crimes against them. It is the Syrian people who decide."
Salehi could not ignore the gap between the two states about Syria. After meeting with Morsi, Salehi said the two states were seeking to avoid areas where they disagree and focus instead on common ground.
So far, Egypt’s openness to Iran has not threatened U.S-Egyptian relations, experts say. Morsi appears still to be figuring out what U.S.-Egyptian relations will look like in the post-Mubarak era, said Jon Alterman, a Middle East expert at the Washington-based Center for International and Strategic Studies. So far, Morsi has not signaled he wants to undermine American interests.
“I think people are watching carefully, but it’s not time to declare Egypt a hostile state,” he said.
U.S. Embassy officials in Cairo declined to comment about Salehi’s visit. Morsi has yet to visit the United States, but officials from his office told McClatchy a trip could come as early as next month.