This is a development that holds the potential to shake up Middle Eastern politics — Iranian vice-president visiting Cairo. The two countries pulled down the shutters following the Iranian revolution in 1979 and a dark period continued right till the end of the Hosni Mubarak era. The revolution on Tahrir Square one year ago heralded a thaw, the first sign of which was the permission granted to an Iranian warship to cross the Suez Canal to visit Syria.
Low-key contacts followed, including a meeting between the two foreign ministers on the sidelines of theNAM meeting in Bali, Indonesia in May last year. Iran pressed hard for the resumption of diplomatic ties. Egypt sought more time. Tehran didn’t press, either, comprehending the complexities of the Egyptian situation.
Meanwhile, the military junta permitted a second Iranian warship to cross the Suez Canal, disregarding the stern rebuke by the United States and Israel (and the annoyance of Saudi Arabia). On its part, evidently with the acquiescence of Cairo, Tehran began inviting a series of Egyptian goodwill delegations from the civil society in a sustained effort to reach out to the various sections — especially the Islamist forces — of Egyptian society.
To be sure, a critical mass of opinion began accruing in Egypt, including within the Muslim Brotherhood, regarding the restoration of normal ties with Iran.
Enter Saudi Arabia!
Taking advantage of the economic crisis in Egypt, Riyadh offered economic assistance, but with strings attached. The bottom line for the Saudis is that Egypt shouldn’t dilute Riyadh’s regional campaign to “isolate” Iran. The main worry for the Saudis is that if Egypt, the biggest and most powerful Sunni Arab country, mends fences with Iran, the entire geopolitical thesis built around a contrived Sunni-Shi’ite sectarian schism which the US-Israeli-Saudi axis has been expounding as the centre-piece of the Arab Spring, would flounder.
The stakes are indeed very high. Therefore, Saudi Arabia invited the newly-elected Mohammed Morsi of the Brotherhood to visit Riyadh last month. The Saudis hoped that Morsi would play footsie on the Sunni-Sh’ite front and get Egypt to play its due role in the Syrian crisis. But, reading between the lines, one is getting the impression that Saudis are pretty much unsure how to handle Morsi. Prominent Saudi commentators have been all along leveling harsh criticism at Morsi and the Brothers . Even after the meeting between King Abdullah and Morsi last month, critical reportage is continuing in the Saudi establishment press , even pitting the Brothers against Egypt’s Al-Azhar in a clever ploy to divide the islamist camp in Egypt .
The point is, Riyadh has the utmost to fear from the Brothers — the spectre of the Brothers spearheading a ‘regime change’ in Saudi Arabia at some point haunts the Saudi rulers. The equations between the Saudis and the Brothers have been a troubled and often-violent one with the former Crown Prince Nayef using brutal methods to smash up the activities of the Brothers on Saudi soil.
This is where an Egyptian-Iranian rapprochement at this point becomes a major setback for the Saudi regime. If the Iranian news report carried by Fars is to be believed, Iranian vice-president Hamid Baqayee may visit Cairo to personally hand over the letter of invitation from President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad to Morsi to attend the forthcoming NAM summit meeting in Tehran.
Ahmedinejad had telephoned Morsi last month to extend the Iranian invitation and a conversation followed, which evidently prompted the follow-up mission by Baqayee. Indeed, Tehran is making a big gesture in protocol terms — deputing a vice-president to visit a country with which it has no diplomatic ties. The conclusion must be drawn that the probability of Morsi traveling to Tehran is rather high.
To be sure, an engrossing chapter is opening in the chronicle of the Arab Spring. Iran has throughout maintained that the Arab Spring will inevitably work in its favor in political terms. From Tehran’s viewpoint, Islamism is a common bond that will ultimately tie Iran with the democratic regimes that emerge in the Arab world led by Islamist parties — be it Tunisia, Libya or Yemen — as time passes, no matter the manipulations by third parties.
That is to say, Iranians estimate that these Arab Spring regimes will come under compulsion sooner rather than later to pay heed to the popular opinion on the so-called Arab Street, which will favor pan-Islamic policies, since the Arab will see through the politics of sectarianism that the West and its regional allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel have propagated in the interests of their self-preservation or for the perpetuation of their hegemony over the Muslim Middle East. The Iranians are of course taking a longterm perspective in terms of the social and political forces being unleashed by the Arab Spring in the stagnant Arab world.
This is where Egypt’s stance becomes crucial. Egypt is the heart of the Arab world and it is manifestly aspiring to reclaim the role it lost in the period since the Camp David Accord in 1979 to the Saudis. All three protagonists — Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt — know that Riyadh conclusively loses the ideological war if Cairo refuses to play sectarian politics in the Muslim Middle East, and Tehran will then be a net gainer.
If Morsi travels to Tehran at the end of this month, it becomes a defining moment in regional politics. One would like to be a fly on the wall if Morsi were to meet Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei .