Visit by Egypt’s Morsi to Iran reflects foreign policy shift


Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi (R) reads an invitation to the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Iran during a meeting with Iranian Vice President Hamid Baghaei (C) and Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr at the presidential palace in Cairo. (AFP/Getty Images)
August 27, 2012

A decision by Egypt’s new president to travel to Tehran for a summit of the Non-Aligned Movement this week reflects a major foreign policy shift for the Arab world’s most populous nation, after decades of subservience to Washington.

The visit by President Mohamed Morsi to Iran will be the first by an Egyptian leader since the nations broke off diplomatic relations in the 1980s after Egypt’s recognition of Israel. As the host nation, Iran is widely expected to use the gathering to strengthen tepid ties among the 120 countries set to attend the summit, and to decry what Tehran has portrayed as a heavy-handed and unfair crusade by the West to isolate the Islamic republic over its controversial nuclear program.

The Non-Aligned Movement comprises nations that do not belong to major blocs led by world powers. As Egypt’s first Islamist president, and as a successor to a long tradition of military rule, Morsi has signaled an eagerness to extend his country’s ties, particularly with fellow Muslim nations, a spokesman for Morsi told reporters this week.

“We need to establish relations with all countries worldwide,” the spokesman, Yasser Ali, told reporters Sunday. “We will turn more agile, more active. Egypt is a pivotal country, and we want to play the role Egypt deserves to play.”

The Obama administration had sought to discourage countries from attending the Tehran meeting, saying that doing so would undermine international efforts to isolate Iran over its nuclear program. In discussing Morsi’s trip, his spokesman was careful not to characterize the visit as a snub to the United States. He noted that the Egyptian president has not scheduled bilateral meetings with Iranian leaders and has not endorsed the resumption of diplomatic relations between Egypt and Iran.

Even under President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt regularly took part in gatherings of the Non-Aligned Movement, which are held every three years. Most countries do not send a head of state to the meeting. Analysts described Morsi’s trip to Iran as a clear sign that Egypt will no longer act as a U.S. lackey in the foreign policy realm.

In the past, “Egypt could not move except with instructions from America and in a direction that benefited America’s interests,” said Abdallah el-Ashaal, a former Egyptian deputy foreign minister. “Today Egypt does not require permission from Washington.”

Iran appears eager to use the event to decry its deepening isolation amid intensifying sanctions by the United States and its European allies. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said during a speech Sunday that members of the Non-Aligned Movement should confront “unilateral sanctions against some members.”

Other than Morsi, key figures expected to attend the meeting include U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. India remains a significant importer of Iranian oil, which has caused frustration among Western nations trying to isolate Iran.

“This is India’s signal to Iran that we are still balanced and we are not entirely in America’s camp,” said Lalit Mansingh, a former Indian ambassador to the United States.

Ramin Mehmanparast, a spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, told reporters that visiting dignitaries will have an opportunity to tour scientific and industrial sites, including nuclear facilities. Iran maintains that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, but the United States and other nations charge that Tehran wants to build a nuclear arsenal that could be used to attack Israel.

In a provocative gesture, Iran has used the convention hall to display the wreckage of vehicles destroyed in recent assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists presumed to have been targeted for their work.

It’s not clear whether the intensifying conflict in Syria will become a focus of the summit, but it is certain to be the topic of back-door talks. Shiite-led Iran is a close ally of Syria, where most power remains consolidated among the minority Alawites, who belong to an offshoot of the Shiite faith. Egypt has proposed to broker talks among Saudi, Turkish and Iranian officials aimed at resolving Syria’s civil war.

It is not clear whether Syria will send a delegation to the conference, at a time when government forces there are battling rebels seeking to oust President Bashar al-Assad. But Iranian parliament speaker Ali Larijani hailed Morsi’s visit, highlighting the important role Iran and Egypt play in the Islamic world.

“Since a long time ago, Egypt and Iran as two big Muslim countries have had close ties and played key roles in the Islamic civilization,” he said, according to the semiofficial Fars News Agency.

Tehran appointed an ambassador to Cairo for the first time in decades after last year’s Egyptian revolt, which toppled Mubarak. Cairo has yet to reciprocate.

Henry Shull and Ingy Hassieb in Cairo and Rama Lakshmi in New Delhi contributed to this report.

Henry Shull and Ingy Hassieb in Cairo and Rama Lakshmi in New Delhi contributed to this report.

Ernesto Londoño covers the Pentagon for the Washington Post.
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