The first visit to the Islamic Republic by an Egyptian president since 1979.
Egypt’s new president Mohamed Morsi is in Tehran this week for the meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Since taking office on June 30, Morsi has had a busy itinerary. He visited Saudi Arabia last month, is due in China next week, and on September 23 will be in Washington on President Obama’s invitation.
Morsi also found time, one day before taking office, to vow to secure the release of “Blind Sheikh” Omar Abdel-Rahman, an Egyptian currently serving a life sentence at a North Carolina facility for masterminding the 1993 World Trade Center bombings.
Within Iran, Morsi is encountering some interesting landmarks. Israeli commentator Smadar Peri points out that on Sunday his convoy passed through Tehran’s Islambouli Square—named after Khalid Islambouli, who assassinated one of Morsi’s predecessors as Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, in October 1981. Islambouli was a member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which some sources identify as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood—that is, Morsi’s organization.
There has, indeed, been bad blood between Egypt and Iran since those days. Relations were broken off in 1980, a year after Ayatollah Khomeini’s Shiite revolutionaries took power in Iran. It didn’t help matters when Iran hailed Islambouli (executed in Egypt in 1982) as a martyr. Morsi’s visit to Iran this week is the first by an Egyptian president since 1979.
It’s also reported that Morsi will be among NAM heads of state to be hosted this week at Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant. This at a time when Iran is racing ahead in its nuclear weapons program, denying the International Atomic Energy Agency access to its nuclear sites, and intensifying its genocidal rhetoric against Israel and vows to destroy it.
Does all this indicate a rapprochement between Shiite-Islamist Iran and Sunni, newly Islamist Egypt? Another Israeli analyst, Dore Gold, a former ambassador to the UN, notes that there are serious obstacles to such a reconciliation.
They include particularly the fact that in Syria, Iran is helping Bashar Assad’s Shiite-offshoot Alawite regime fight largely Sunni rebels—including a presence on the ground of Iranian Revolutionary Guards actively killing Sunnis. The Sunnis, for their part, are backed by the Sunni Arab countries Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Seemingly, then, Egypt and Iran are on opposite sides of the bitter, bloody sectarian conflicts now being waged in Syria and elsewhere in the region, which have both Persian vs. Arab and Shiite vs. Sunni dimensions.
As Gold points out, there is also a history of mutual ideological admiration between Egyptian and Iranian Islamists. But as of Friday, the day Gold’s article was published, there were still reports that—given the obstacles—Morsi might not make the trip to Tehran at all.
We know now that he did, sectarian strife and all. Indeed, this week an Iranian official told Iran’s Fars News Agency that Iran and Egypt could cooperate in the nuclear sphere and “Iran is ready to transfer its know-how and experience to Egypt.”
All this comes at a time when Israel is increasingly concerned about Egyptian military activity in Sinai. Reports say Egypt is still consulting and coordinating with Israel—as per the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty—as Egypt cracks down on Salafi terrorists in the peninsula. In an ominous move, though, Egypt has already deployed tanks into northern Sinai without Israeli approval.
Ominous but not surprising, since Morsi—in keeping with the fundamental anti-Israeli, anti-Semitic tenets of Muslim Brotherhood ideology—has let it be known that he sees the peace treaty as something to erode rather than maintain.
It’s too early to speak of Egypt and Iran making friends. Israel, though, has to watch signs of such a process closely. For now the Washington-bound Morsi, still dependent on U.S. aid, is not likely to embrace the mullahs too openly and passionately. Jerusalem, though, does not have illusions about his ultimate ideological commitments and direction. Whether the Obama administration can see through Morsi’s behavior is a different question, not warranting much optimism.
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