Saturday,21 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1131, 17 - 23 January
Saturday,21 October, 2017
Issue 1131, 17 - 23 January

Ahram Weekly

Relative values

Ahmed Eleiba examines the future of Egyptian-Iranian relations under President Mohamed Morsi

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Al-Ahram Weekly

There have been many signs of improvement in Egyptian-Iranian relations since President Mohamed Morsi assumed office. In August he took part in the summit of non-aligned nations held in Iran, and Cairo now sits alongside Tehran on the five-member Syrian crisis committee. There have been official exchanges, the latest being Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi’s visit to Cairo on 9-10 January, as well as visits to Iran by Egyptian people’s delegations.
The upswing in bilateral relations is not, however, unclouded. Controversy has arisen over reports of mysterious unpublicised visits. In one case Major-General Kassem Suleimani, commander of the Quds Force, a division of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), was said to have met with Morsi’s assistant for foreign affairs. There have also been rumours of meetings between Iranian officials and members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe. The suggestion that the Muslim Brothers are trying to familiarise themselves with the Iranian regime’s experience in building up the revolutionary guards has caused concern in several quarters.
“Whatever has been said about Muslim Brotherhood-Iranian meetings is pure fiction,” Ahmed Sabie, a prominent MB member, told Al-Ahram Weekly. “There is complete transparency in all meetings and visits made by the MB. There is no need for secrecy in meetings of this sort.”
He stressed that meetings between the president or members of the president’s office and Iranian officials were matters for the presidency to decide.  
“All talk about the Muslim Brothers’ infatuation with Iran’s security experience is nonsense. There is no evidence for it. Nor is there any need,” insists Sabie.
Both Egypt and Iran have denied that Suleimani visited Cairo and met with officials. In addition, the president’s office sent a letter to the British Times refuting reports made by the newspaper about the alleged visit.
Fathi Al-Maraghi, a specialist on Iranian affairs at Ain Shams University, notes: “When a news item like this is denied by both sides it doesn’t make sense to keep insisting that it’s true and weave so much around it.”
 “What is happening between Cairo and Tehran at the moment is not so much an improvement in relations as it is a delineation of roles,” argues Al-Maraghi. “Certainly Cairo approves sustaining the status quo with respect to Hizbullah in Lebanon. In spite of the differences Cairo has with it, the Lebanese resistance movement is still a cornerstone in the struggle with Israel. After the fall of the Al-Assad regime in Syria, Hizbullah will become more important in shoring up the resistance. Egypt and Iran also agree on the principle that there should be no military intervention in Syria, even though it is understood that the Muslim Brotherhood is playing a role in that country that conflicts with Iran’s support for the Al-Assad regime. A message conveying the Egyptian government’s position has been sent to the Muslim Brotherhood’s counterpart in Syria which is likely to be the largest political faction in that country in the post-Assad phase. There isn’t a complete convergence between the presidential palace, which is playing a political role with Iran, and the Muslim Brotherhood, which opposes Iranian support of the regime in Damascus.”
“Ultimately, what this means is that the Muslim Brothers are wary of Iran and not enamoured with its policies. But then not everyone in Iran is comfortable with the Muslim Brotherhood. Hardliners took exception to President Morsi’s remarks, while in Tehran, regarding the need to prioritise the security of the Gulf. The radical Jomhoury newspaper has been ceaseless in its criticisms of Morsi and the MB. On the other hand, an influential current in Iran is keen to forge closer relations with Cairo, albeit in an unobtrusive manner.”
On the question of domestic security agencies, the Egyptian expert on Iranian affairs said: “It is important to distinguish between Iran and Egypt regarding their respective security experiences. Following the Iranian revolution in 1979 the country’s army and security establishments collapsed. A new system had to be constructed and this included the revolutionary guards. This was not the case in Egypt. Not only have its security agencies survived, they have escaped any restructuring. Nor have their senior officials been imprisoned.
Samira Montazeri, a Cairo-based reporter for the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), insisted to the Weekly that she knew of every visit by Iranian officials to Egypt. Her information comes either from her employers, who expect her to cover the visits, or from the Iranian Foreign Ministry which asks her to accompany visiting officials in the capacity of translator. She says the alleged Suleimani visit to Cairo never took place, adding that serving Iranian military officials are not allowed to travel abroad. She also notes that, should Cairo want to keep such a meeting secret, it would make more sense to opt for a venue abroad. “This occurred frequently in the Mubarak era, without the secret meetings coming to light. I imagine that it would be easier now.”
 Mahmoud Farag, former charge d’affairs at the Egyptian Embassy in Tehran, is not convinced. He believes that the Quds Force commander did come to Cairo and meet with Egyptian officials.
“Suleimani is a senior intelligence officer. He was chiefly responsible for the Iraqi portfolio and then became responsible for Syria. He travels to places that are safe for him, such as Baghdad and Damascus, and there is little reason not to surmise that he came to Egypt to discuss intelligence matters. It does not follow that he would have discussed the experience of the revolutionary guards in which the MB is supposed to be interested. Such an idea is out of the question given that the situation is totally different in Egypt. Our security agencies would never accept it and these agencies run deep and would resist even the notion of creating private militias or units. It is also impossible to create a force similar to the revolutionary guards in view of the prestige and history of the Egyptian armed forces, and in view of our powerful General Intelligence, Military Intelligence and other such agencies.”
The Egyptian diplomat believes the Iranians are eager to develop relations with Egypt in spite of sensitive and complex questions such as Shia proselytising, security of the Gulf countries, and Tehran’s support for the regime in Damascus.
“There is also awareness in Egypt that Iran’s relations with the outside world are somewhat secretive. We can expect many leaks and even surprises along the way to the resumption of relations between Cairo and Tehran.”

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