It’s been one week since Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi visited Tehran for the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit. His trip made headlines because it was the first state visit by an Egyptian leader to Iran in decades; it also raised fears in the West that Egypt’s post-revolutionary foreign policy might be more friendly with Iran. But to the surprise of many, Mursi’s opening remarks called for the ouster of Syria’s president and Iran’s only Arab ally, Bashar al Assad. (See: “Mursi Tested by World Tour.”)
Iran’s official response was modest but media outlets have since picked up the slack. Initially, Iranian news sources were not observed to report Mursi’s statement. Government-owned Press TV is said to have changed the wording by replacing the word “Syria” with “Bahrain,” the conflicted island nation that Iran points to as a perfect example of unjust Sunni rule. Iranian officials acknowledged the Egyptian president’s remarks but not in specific terms. They employed a combination of damage control and spin when asked about Mursi’s speech.
Speaking to state-run Mehr News on August 31, Hoseyn Sheykholeslam, the Majles Speaker’s Advisor on International Affairs, said that Mursi’s comments only revealed his immaturity as a statesman. Calling Mursi’s comments a “big mistake,” Sheykholeslam said, “it is not the members of NAM, who will accompany the Egyptian president but it is Mursi, who will have to align himself to the stances of the NAM members.” The Head of Iran’s High Council for Human Rights, Mohammad Javad Larijani, took a different approach. He told Mehr that “opposing views” proved that the NAM summit was accepting of all opinions, and that Iran encouraged “broadmindedness.”
Commentary and editorials weren’t far behind. Judging by the selections I’ve found, these arguments are more nuanced. Mursi’s call for Assad’s departure is explained in three ways: he is desperate for aid and is willing to follow the lead of the Gulf Arabs and Washington; his policies are no different from Iran’s; or his visit was more important than his message.
On August 31, the hard-line daily Siyasat-e Ruz published an editorial that challenged Mursi’s logic. “If the majority of the Syrian people were in favor of toppling Bashar al-Asad, what happened in Egypt and Tunisia would also have been repeated in Syria,” Mohammad Safari argued. Regardless of Mursi’s comments, his attendance and the NAM summit represent important advances for Iran, Safari said.
Qasem Golkhandan, writing on September 2 for the conservative Iranian daily Resalat, argued that Mursi was simply the stooge of his paymasters. “In the meeting in Tehran, Mursi made some remarks about Syria, which seemed to have come out of the heart of the multi-billion [dollar] agreements of Muslim Brothers with America!” He continued: “Mursi paid no attention to the fact that Syria had started a process of reforms, but the Americans with the help of Turkey and Qatar and may be even Egypt that has joined forces with [Saudi] Arabia are intent on starting a major civil war in that country and may be even leading to a world war.”
On September 4, Siyasat-e Ruz published another lengthy article titled, “Is Mursi Thinking about Becoming Erdogan?” In it, several Iranian experts compare Mursi’s policies and rhetoric with that of Turkey’s (mildly) Islamist Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Mehdi Motahharnia unpacks Egypt’s behavior as follows: “The recent positions taken by Mursi show that Egypt from the perspective of its regional position taking is trying to show itself as close to Saudi Arabia and at the same time, to shape the active role of Egypt in the Syrian crisis by getting close to the Ankara-Riyadh-Qatar axis.”
In the same article, Hoseyn Ruyvaran, introduced also as a “political expert,” claims that Mursi’s prescription for Syria is actually the same as Iran’s—even though Iran is accused of supplying weapons, equipment, and manpower to Damascus. For Ruyvaran, Mursi’s rejection of foreign intervention is essential. “Of course, the leaning of the president of Egypt towards the Islamic Republic of Iran and his interest in coordination and unity with Iran caused him to base his behaviour regarding Syria on solving the crisis of that country through political dialogue and to oppose any sort of military intervention for solving the Syrian crisis,” he told Siyasat-e Ruz.
Another expert, Majid Safataj, agreed with Ruyvaran. “We should not examine the statements of the president of Egypt in the Tehran conference by themselves,” he said. “Rather, if we assess all the statements of Morsi in the Tehran meeting, they are completely compatible with the policies of the regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran.” Again, if the bottom line is foreign intervention, Cairo and Tehran agree. Mursi’s “policies oppose any sort of war or military intervention on Syrian soil,” Safataj said.
The article ends with a zinger. Mursi is not Erdogan if both men are judged by their policies, the paper stated. “[The] policies of Erdogan, who engages in any action in support of the terrorists, are not in line with the policy of Mursi,” who—unlike Erdogan—is not sheltering refugees, supporting the Syrian opposition, or demanding that the international community establish safe zones for internally displaced Syrians.
On September 6, Khorasan included an editorial by Ali Reza Rezakhah, who warned that Mursi’s foreign policy will be an extension of the Mubarak era—even though Egypt’s new president visited Tehran days before. The “policies of Muhammad Al-Mursi in [the] international arena and decisions of Egyptian diplomatic apparatus will not be essentially in sharp contrast with the policies of Mubarak,” he said.
Perhaps the most grounded editorial is the most valuable. Writing for the reformist website E’temad, Azadeh Eftekhari, sounded a note of reservation on September 1, just two days after the NAM summit concluded. “Mursi, who earlier on had called on Bashar al-Asad to leave office, adopted a similar stance at the Tehran meeting, and this resulted in the members of the Syrian delegation to leave the meeting in protest… As a result, once again the prospects for the restoration of relations between Tehran and Cairo have been covered under a cloud of uncertainty.”
By Mursi’s own account, Egypt will pursue a more “balanced” foreign policy under his leadership. Some in Iran can’t tell yet if this approach is good news or bad.