Iran eyes change in Egypt and Saudi Arabia very differently
If a foreign observer had been present in Tehran during the recent parliamentary elections in Egypt, he or she would have been surprised by the lack of enthusiasm displayed by the Iranian media. Given the importance of Egypt both as an Islamic state as well as perhaps the most important Arab state bordering Israel, one would have indeed expected the Iranian media to have been full of news and views about that country’s elections.
The elections, and more fundamentally Egypt as a regional power, are of course of immense importance to the Islamic regime. But the lukewarm coverage of that country’s elections reflected Tehran’s underlying problem with the important issue of a successor to President Hosni Mubarak – a problem broadly shared when it comes to Saudi Arabia, the second power in the region.
In its simplest form, the question is reduced to, “Who do the Iranian leaders wish to see succeed Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah?” Who, and why? None of the candidates or political rivals challenging Mubarak really appeals to the Iranian leaders. For years Mohamed ElBaradei, as director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, was portrayed in Iran as “an American lackey and agent.”
The Egyptian secular opposition doesn’t appeal to Tehran either. A hardline Iranian newspaper close to the government cautioned “the Muslim people of Egypt not to be duped by the propaganda of decadent Western powers that are trying to replace the bankrupt Mubarak regime with yet another Western-inclined puppet.”
A newspaper with similar loyalties warned that the “Mubarak regime has expired … The Americans are seriously thinking of installing a new regime in that country. A regime [that], or for that matter a leader who, will have all the hallmarks of change, but will maintain the same old policy of serving the West and Zionism.” Such a description not only includes ElBaradei, but in a broader context involves practically every secular, liberal and Western-inclined potential successor to Mubarak.
This leaves us with the Islamic groups. But here too, the Iranian leaders are not content. The media coverage of the Muslim Brotherhood movement was not at all as positive as might have been expected. The reality is that Islamic Iran does not share a great deal of common ground with the Muslim Brotherhood. From the Shiite Iranian leaders’ perspective, the Muslim Brotherhood, in the final analysis, represents Sunni Islam and its adherence to “Sunnism” is both strong and deep-rooted.
Secondly, the Brotherhood, at least in Egypt, is not sufficiently anti-Western and, more importantly, anti-American. The Islam of the Sudanese leadership, Hamas or Hizbullah in Lebanon is much closer to what Iran favors. In short, none of the present opponents of Hosni Mubarak particularly appeals to Tehran.
This, of course, is the view of the hardline Iranian leaders. The Iranian opposition – including the reformists, supporters of Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi and others – supports both ElBaradei and the Muslim Brotherhood activists. Unlike the hardline Iranian leaders, for the reformists the anti-American issue is of no significance. The more independent newspapers close to the reformists attach importance to the position of Mubarak’s opponents regarding human rights and civil liberties.
But it is the hardliners who ultimately shape relations between Iran and Egypt. Not only do they have no clear vision regarding Egypt’s future leadership, but Tehran also opposes any change in relations between the two countries. Last October, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tried to repair three decades of broken relations with Egypt. After an aide to Ahmadinejad visited Cairo and held talks with senior Egyptian officials, some newspapers close to the president reported the resumption of flights between Tehran and Cairo. But the Ahmadinejad’s attempt failed to change anything and the entire project was shelved.
Relations between Egypt and Iran are largely symbolic; they bear little practical significance. It is only in dealing with Palestine and Hamas that the two countries have business to transact; otherwise, they go their separate ways. There have been many attempts by Iran to break the ice as far as relations with Egypt are concerned, including the recent one by Ahmadinejad. However, they have always failed.
The situation is however very different with respect to Saudi Arabia. The succession issue in Riyadh is more important from the Iranian perspective. Iran and Saudi Arabia are geographically too close for Iran to ignore events in the kingdom. It was against this backdrop that Ahmadinejad promptly dismissed comments against Iran attributed to the Saudi leader, and recently disclosed by WikiLeaks. King Abdullah had urged US leaders to attack Iran in order to prevent it from becoming a nuclear power – a request shared by other Arab leaders in the region, including Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Jordan. Interestingly, rather than these Arab leaders responding to the reports, the Iranian president himself dismissed them and stated that “relations between Iran and its Arab neighbors are strong and deep-rooted.” His comments reflect the importance of relations with these states, and particularly Saudi Arabia.
None of the complications that Hosni Mubarak’s succession presents for Iran exists in the case of Saudi King Abdullah. The king has no secular, Western or Brotherhood opposition to worry about. The only consideration Iranian leaders have regarding his successor is that he be less anti-Iranian than the present Saudi leadership.
Sadegh Zibakalamis a professor of political science at Tehran University. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter that publishes commentaries on Middle Eastern and Islamic issues.