x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Egypt’s PM talks sense on how to deal with Iran

Hazem El Beblawi had two things to say about relations among Egypt, the GCC, and Iran. The dual message was sensible and welcome.

Egypt’s prime minister, Hazem El Beblawi, had a sensible and comforting message for his hosts on Sunday, at the end of his three-day official visit to the UAE.

The most populous Arab country, which also has the biggest GDP (after the UAE and Saudi Arabia), stands solidly with the GCC countries in matters of security, Mr El Beblawi told a press conference after his talks with leaders here concluded.

“Any matter that affects the stability of the GCC will directly affect the Egyptian national security,” he said. “This matter is non-negotiable and the GCC security is one of the main support points of Egypt’s security.”

This is a reassuring change of tone from Egypt’s apparent position during the unhappy presidency of Mohammed Morsi, when Iran sought ways to exploit the Muslim Brotherhood ascendancy there. Where Mr Morsi’s Egypt focused on tighter ties with Turkey and Iran, the new government in Cairo has turned back towards the Arab world.

And the UAE’s national security, in matters touching Iran, is not merely a theoretical matter. The continued occupation of the islands of Abu Musa and Greater and Lesser Tunb, seized by Iran in 1971 during the reign of the last shah, is a daily reminder that Iran has never been reluctant to use its power. For decades the UAE has called for a negotiated settlement to the dispute, but the Islamic Republic remains as adamant as the House of Pahlavi was.

Mr El Beblawi’s message was not, however, mere sabre-rattling. His country’s new solidarity with the GCC, he also said on Sunday, does not preclude openness to dialogue with others: “Political dialogue with those who have a different opinion is a natural way to remove fears,” he said. In the context he evidently meant Iran.

Egypt and the GCC are of course not the only countries to “have a different opinion” with Iran on many vital issues. The world shares the region’s alarm over Iran’s nuclear programme, and at its destabilising support and exploitation of Shia-Sunni divisions.

While economic sanctions and even military preparedness are essential tools, the preferred approach to all disputes with the government of Iran will always be the diplomatic one. And resolute purpose, clear positions, and important allies compose the foundation needed to make diplomacy work. For that reason, both parts of Mr El Beblawi’s message were very welcome.