x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

An uneasy courtship as Iran and Egypt test the waters

A consensus that the visit of the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to Egypt misses important messages.

There is a consensus among commentators that the visit of the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to Egypt - complete with red carpet and kiss on both cheeks from President Mohammed Morsi - does not amount to a breakthrough. The view of US think-tanks is that it does not amount to very much at all, and certainly not worth getting anxious about. Such a consensus is always dangerous, and it is worth looking more closely at what it is based on.

Mr Ahmadinejad is the first Iranian leader to set foot in Cairo since the deposed Shah of Iran was given refuge in Cairo, where he died and received a state funeral. The two countries have not had diplomatic relations since 1979.

The Iranian president's visit has deep historical significance, even if he came as a guest of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference summit. The picture of the two presidents embracing says to the world: Egypt is released from the US straitjacket and is free to resume its position as a regional power.

There are plenty of reasons, however, to dismiss the visit as just show. Mr Ahmadinejad is a lame duck, banned by the constitution from running for a third term in the June elections. As Iran moves into a period of war economy under the pressure of sanctions designed to curb its nuclear programme, Mr Ahmadinejad is engaged in a furious struggle to ensure that his rival, the parliamentary speaker, Ali Larijani, does not succeed him. The corruption allegations levelled by Mr Ahmadinejad against the Larijani family are deeply damaging to the Iranian regime.

Mr Morsi, meanwhile, has little to show Egyptians that he has improved their lot. Cairo is the scene of near-constant street battles and the economy is tanking. Egypt's currency reserves have just sunk to $13.6 billion (Dh50 billion), below the critical level needed to cover three months of imports. The country is staring bankruptcy in the face, but cannot access emergency funds from the International Monetary Fund without implementing unpopular reforms that would further raise social tensions.

Both leaders need to show that they have "friends" abroad. The reality is a little different. Egypt and Iran appear to be divided by the Syria conflict, which is symptomatic of the wider split between the Sunni Muslim powers, led by Saudi Arabia, and Iran's faltering "axis of resistance" that, with Syria in play and Hamas having defected, now looks increasingly like a Shia Muslim axis.

If we look more closely, then the story of Egypt resuming its role as a regional power looks premature. At this stage, Egypt is trying to find some space to manoeuvre between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Given that Saudi Arabia has the money that Egypt needs, and Washington has a lock on the actions of the IMF, that space is limited.

But what does Washington think? Not very much at the moment. With President Barack Obama's second term team still being assembled, it is not surprising that there is something of a vacuum in Middle East policy. But the issue is deeper than that. The Obama administration has declared it wants to focus on the Asia-Pacific region and, surprisingly, it means what it says.

Only a year after troops withdrew from Iraq, that country is not talked about in Washington, like an embarrassing relative. In North Africa, the US military has taken a back seat while the work of toppling Colonel Muammar Qaddafi and driving back the jihadists in Mali has been left to Franco-British forces. Syrian policy is one of drift, where the administration finds all options unpalatable. In Egypt, Washington has set a red line for the Muslim Brotherhood leadership: it must adhere to the peace treaty with Israel. Everything else is negotiable.

This week the Pentagon revealed that it would no longer be stationing two aircraft carriers in the Gulf region, as it has done for most of the past two years, due to cuts in the defence budget, and the possibility of even more stringent ones if Congress fails to agree on raising the US debt ceiling.

The Iranian nuclear programme remains a priority in Washington, but the carrier decision indicates a less warlike stance. One cannot say that US power is ebbing, but there is a clear lack of political will in Washington for decisive action in the Middle East. For now, the logic is that regional powers will have to take more responsibility. Egypt, although impotent at the moment, will have to find its role. The US needs to talk to Iran if there is ever going to be a compromise on its nuclear programme. Maybe Egypt could help.

Both Egypt and Iran have denied a report that General Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Quds force, a division of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and the man responsible for Iran's military operations in Syria, visited Cairo in January. There was no reaction in Washington to this report.

If there is going to be a resolution of the Syrian crisis without a decade of Lebanon-style war, then allies of the US will have to speak to someone of the calibre of Gen Suleimani, a far more important figure than Mr Ahmadinejad. Could this lead to a historic compromise between the Muslim Brotherhood and the ayatollahs to create a new Islamic front spreading revolution?

That is out of the question. Egypt is too reliant on foreign finance, which Iran cannot offer at the moment, for it to swing into Tehran's orbit. And there is far too much domestic opposition.

What is clear is that while the US is reluctant to take direct responsibility, other countries must find ways of resolving the regional contradictions that have become unmanageable in the era of American tutelage. That will lead to some unlikely meetings taking place. The Morsi-Ahmadinejad embrace may not be a breakthrough, but it does show one thing: what was unthinkable a few years ago may one day be the norm.



On Twitter: @aphilps