2012 Tehran NAM Summit: Could Iran and Egypt make common cause on Syria?

Will the gathering of the 120 member Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran, the second largest global forum of its kind after the United Nations, be an event filled with platitudes or could it result in successful diplomatic initiatives, especially for the event’s host the Islamic Republic of Iran? Two fronts on which Iran may be able to make gains are in mitigating the impact of United States and European Union economic sanctions through closer cooperation with NAM countries and in finding regional partners to oppose the West-Saudi Arabia-Turkey axis in Syria.

Could Iran circumvent economic sanctions through NAM talks?

On 29 August 2012, Iranian oil minister Rostam Ghassemi announced that he would be holding talks with representatives of India and Central Asian and African states on the side of the NAM foreign ministers meeting in Tehran to discuss enhanced energy ties. According to Ghassemi the results of the talks would be revealed after the conclusion of the NAM summit.

These energy talks with NAM members, who Ghassemi claimed represented half of the global energy market, could be aimed at breaking US and EU energy sanctions which have played havoc with Iran’s petroleum industry, especially damaging crude oil exports in the last year. The Iranian government has historically relied on oil for up to 80 percent of its export revenue and 40 percent of state revenue. The notion that the NAM summit would be used by Iran to attempt to circumvent sanctions was reinforced by statements on the part of Iranian foreign minister Ali-Akbar Salehi, who attacked US and EU sanctions as “unilateral”.

NAM summit marks “reset” in Iran-Egypt relations?

The summit will also feature a hand-over of the NAM leadership from Egypt to Iran, which will hold it for the next three years. Many are calling Morsi’s visit to Tehran part of a reset in Iran-Egypt relations. The Islamic Republic broke ties with Egypt after the Islamic Revolution of 1979 over Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel and because of its strong ties with Iran’s Pahlavi dynasty. Egypt’s 2012 revolution helped bring to power the Muslim Brotherhood, a 84 year old moderate Sunni Islamist movement with historically cordial ties with the Islamic Republic. The Brotherhood, mired down by domestic political and economic dilemmas, has not introduced any truly radical shifts in Egypt’s foreign policy. However, gradual shifts in Egypt’s foreign policy can be detected, particularly as it relates to its role in the Middle East and ties with Iran.

Morsi’s trip to the NAM summit in Tehran has led to speculation about a possible Iran-Egypt partnership on the issue of Syria. The Islamic Republic hopes to keep the Bashar al-Assad regime in power and to prevent overt or covert military intervention by Western and regional powers (including Saudi Arabia and Turkey). Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the two key regional players on the other side of the Syrian civil war, want a complete overthrow of the al-Assad regime and at the very least a covert military intervention (in the form of support for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and other rebel factions) to help insure the regime’s complete demise.

Where does Egypt under the Brotherhood stand? On the one hand, there is little love lost between the Brotherhood and al-Assad regime. In 1982 Hafez al-Assad, the current Syrian dictator’s father, ordered the massacre of what is estimated to be thousands Syrian Muslim Brotherhood members and unarmed civilians in the city of Hama, an act the Egyptian Brotherhood cannot easily overlook. On the other hand, the Morsi’s Egypt would likely prefer to see a Syria which continues to be anti-Israel but is not dominated by pro-Saudi Salafists, much like the Iranian-backed Sunni Hamas movement in Gaza.

Egypt’s position provides some space for cooperation with Iran on the Syrian issue. Given the intensity of the uprising against al-Assad, it is unrealistic that he will remain in power much longer, as suggested in a recent statement by Qadri Jamil. However few, particularly in the West and Israel, are pushing for an Iraq-style overthrow involving the destruction of key state institutions such as the Alawi-dominated military and bureaucracy. This means that pro-Iranian Alawite elements of the regime, bruised and battered, are likely to remain and could be key to any viable transition which maintains Syria’s territorial integrity and does not result in further regional instability. With Iranian backing these remnants of the regime could partner with pro-Egyptian Brotherhood elements in Syria, creating a counterweight to the current Saudi and Turkish dominated FSA and opposition.

Egypt, which is a potential rival to Saudi Arabia for the leadership of the Arab World, appears unlikely to fully back the Saudi- and Turkish-backed opposition which contains strong Salafist elements opposed to the Brotherhood. On the other hand, one must also be skeptical of a possible Iran-Egypt partnership on Syria at this point given the Brotherhood’s own unsure footing at home and the strong anti-Iran sentiment internationally. However, the possibility should not be dismissed out of hand and may actually prove a key part of the end of the Syrian civil war in the long-run.