Ahmadinejad, Morsi and a thaw in Iran-Egypt relations

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the first Iranian President to visit Cairo in more than 30 years, and he was one of the first state leaders to arrive in the Egyptian capital for the OIC conference which begins today.

The conference is surely not his primary reason for travelling to Egypt. It seems that his main focus is on relationship-building with the new government – such a development would not have been coutenanced during the Mubarak era.

On arrival, Ahmadinejad held talks with Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi, before praying at the historic el-Hussein mosque and then meeting al-Azhar Grand Imam, Sheikh Ahmad Attayib.

These two presidents need each other. Morsi wants to send a strong message to the Gulf states, that he may choose to ally with Iran if they continue to support the Egyptian opposition. The Iranian President meanwhile wants to show the West — particularly the United States — that his country is capable of breaking its US-enforced isolationism, proving itself to be a major regional power in the process.

Iran had already taken the first steps along this path two days ago when Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi held a surprise meeting in Munich with Syrian National Coalition [SNC] leader, Sheikh Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib.

Most Gulf states remain wary about the Egyptian revolution, and its subsequent democratic transition, because it brought a Muslim Brotherhood candidate to power. This is expected to be the loophole through which Ahmadinejad will engage the hearts and minds of the Egyptian leadership. Throughout the visit he has been keen to praise his hosts, claiming he came to Cairo to express his people's fondness and admiration for the Egyptians.

"We consider Egypt's progress as closely linked to Iran's progress," Ahmadinejad said, adding that a group of al-Azhar scholars have already accepted his invitation to visit "their second homeland," Iran.

Al-Azhar’s Grand Imam, Sheikh Ahmad Attayib — condemned by many Palestinian figures for visiting the al-Aqsa Mosque in occupied Jerusalem — has tried to reassure the Gulf states about his position. His spokesman Hassan al-Shafei told reporters the meeting was “frank,” and addressed the obstacles hindering unity between Sunnis and Shiites.

Egypt’s Foreign Minister walked a similar line, stressing that rapprochement between Egypt and Iran would never be at the expense of the Gulf security. And yet this statement suggests that rapprochement is already well underway, if not imminent.

President Ahmadinejad has stolen the limelight from all the other Muslim leaders at the OIC summit, just as he did at the previous summit in Mecca in 2012, following an invitation from Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz.

It is hard to understand why some Gulf states seem so jittery about this latest visit, or of any kind of political thaw between Egypt and Iran, when the Saudi king received Ahmadinejad in Mecca with such warmth – even compared with the reception given to Turkish President Abdullah Gul and Morsi himself.

Aggravating tensions between Sunnis and Shiites is not such a priority amongst the Egyptian people. So it could make Ahmadinejad’s mission to restore ties all the more easier.

If President Morsi is seeking for reasons to justify reopening Egypt’s embassy in Tehran, he could argue that Gulf countries have the biggest embassies in the Iranian capital and all their national airlines still fly to Tehran. Why shouldn’t Egypt do the same?

Strong ties between Egypt and Iran could lead to greater control over Iranian influence in Iraq, criticised by many within the Iraqi Sunni community. This could in turn heighten the chances of a realistic and peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis, particularly since the US and other Western countries have so badly let down the Syrian opposition by not providing financial or military support.

Arab hostility towards Iran hasn’t stopped it from developing significant military capabilities or amassing huge regional influence. The reason for Iran's regional success is ultimately due to the Arabs, the Gulf states and their American allies who offered Iraq to Iran on a silver platter – all the Iranians did was accept the gift with gratitude.

If the Gulf states really want to curb Iran’s influence over Egypt, they’ll have to support efforts to resolve its national economy, instead of blaming them. It is beyond most people’s understanding that these countries boast funds in excess of $3,000bn and yet they force Egypt to beg for an IMF loan.

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