Egypt’s president heads to Iran: snub or help to the U.S.?

Visit to Iran is seen as a signal by Egypt that it wants new influence in the Middle East

Michael Fitzgerald By Michael Fitzgerald

Mohamed Morsi, president of Egypt, apparently will make the first visit to Iran by an Egyptian head-of-state in more than 30 years. (Reuters)

It’s hardly made a blip in the U.S. press, but Egypt’s new president, Mohammed Morsi, is expected to visit Iran at the end of this week. Atul Aneja in The Hindu sees it as a blow to U.S. diplomacy.

The U.S. has worked hard to establish good relations with Morsi and his party, the Muslim Brotherhood. But Morsi’s first trip is to China, which could now become a major investor in Egypt’s economy, as it has been elsewhere in Africa. On his way back, he intends to stop in Iran.

An Egyptian president has not visited Iran since 1979, after the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and Egypt recognized Israel. The Jerusalem Post notes that Morsi recently threatened to sue an Iranian news agency for reporting that he wanted to restore relations with Iran. Morsi is officially going for a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement, countries that were not aligned with either the U.S. or the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Egypt is currently head of the NAM; Iran will become the next head at the meeting in Tehran.

Egypt and Iran do not currently exchange ambassadors. Any warming in relationship between the “two heavyweights,” Aneja says, would remake the political dynamic of the entire Middle East.

Aneja notes that Morsi’s trips to China and Iran “follow a feverish effort that had been mounted by the Obama administration to woo the Muslim Brothers,” including visits within one month by Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

The Tehran Times applauded the “eyebrow-raising” move, and predicted an Israel marginalized like never before (as if Israel suddenly will no longer matter in the region).

A lengthy but interesting commentary in the Asia Times thinks Morsi is thumbing his nose at the U.S., but also at the Gulf states.

But Bryan R. Gibson, writing in the Majalla, an Arab magazine published out of London, said the U.S. might benefit from warmer relations between Egypt and Iran.

Should an Egyptian-Iranian rapprochement occur, it is entirely plausible that Egypt could help facilitate a face-saving option for Iran, thereby enhancing Egyptian prestige. Ideally Tehran would like foreign sanctions to be lifted, whilst appearing not to cave to Western demands on a nascent Iranian nuclear industry. Egypt might succeed where others have failed, in persuading Iran to moderate its position on the nuclear issue.

After all, Egypt maintains good relations with the US, has vital interests in the region, and recognizes that a nuclear arms race in the Gulf is not in its national security interests.

It could also ease tensions over Syria, since Egypt is a moderate Sunni state.

No one can predict the future, but Morsi clearly has shaken the crystal ball.