Ever since Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi proposed a quartet of states to resolve the Syrian crisis, including the Iranians, a question has been raised: The move itself is a notable step towards reawakening a dormant Egypt so it can play its regional role, but why Iran?
Recently, a trilateral committee of Egypt, Turkey and Iran convened, with Saudi Arabia absent on the grounds of being preoccupied with other issues. Of course, this excuse is unconvincing, and it is more likely that Saudi Arabia has deliberately opted to distance itself from Iran’s participation in any decisions regarding Syria. This is because such participation would grant the Iranian regime carte blanche to later on act as a partner in any decision on Syria that might be taken regionally.
Mursi's administration may be seeking to usher in a new era, away from Hosni Mubarak’s concept of foreign policy, and it would have every right to do so were it not for the fact that this particular issue can damage Syria as well as Egypt's interests. Iran has made no secret of its intention to rescue the Bashar al-Assad regime, and has tried its upmost to keep it afloat; from the moment the revolution erupted last year until now.
Iran can also be held partly responsible for the al-Assad regime's crimes that claimed the lives of tens of thousands of innocent people, in the most horrific massacres the region has ever seen, and the killings continue unabated. It is certain that the Iranian regime will act to cripple any real solution put forward by the quartet, and this could have devastating consequences for the reputation of the Mursi administration.
It is inconceivable that Iran would play a positive role in the overthrow of al-Assad and in ending the crisis, for everything Iran says about a peaceful solution means only one thing: keeping the al-Assad regime in power. Because of Iran's stance and its partnership with al-Assad, the Syrian people have begun to detest anything related to the Iranian regime, in the same manner that they detest the Syrian regime. Consequently, even if there was a peaceful solution, however improbable it may seem, it would be rejected by the Syrian opposition because of Iran's presence at the negotiation table.
There is also another, strategic aspect: The belief that an Egyptian-Iranian special relationship will be established. This could be damaging for Egypt, more than on any other country. I have read satirical analysis of Egypt playing the role of a "guarantor” for the Gulf region when it comes to dealing with Iran, but aside from this sarcastic rhetoric, the fact is that such a relationship would take away one of Egypt’s trump cards in the regional game.
Iran is similar to Egypt - although not in a complimentary manner - in terms of its population, proximity to the neighboring Gulf region and its desire to be an active partner in the world's most significant oil-producing region. These are all competitive attributes and therefore it is not surprising that Egypt, in its relationship with the Gulf, has always been a competitor of Iran rather than an ally, throughout the eras of Abdul Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak. Even when relations between Riyadh and Cairo were at their lowest, Abdul Nasser distanced himself from Iran's Shah and remained opposed to him.
Practically speaking, Mursi, by involving the Iranians, is giving them access to Egypt’s affairs whilst gaining little advantage in the Gulf, because Iran’s region is the subject of international, not only regional, disputes.
I was expecting Mursi to play a more influential role in the Syrian issue, a role commensurate with the admirable stance he displayed against the Bashar al-Assad regime during the Non-aligned Summit in Tehran, which he has yet to live up to. What is stopping Egypt from participating with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Jordan to support the Syrian revolution in a manner that goes beyond official statements? Also, unofficially speaking, Egypt can play a key role in toppling the al-Assad regime by providing support to the rebels by all means possible.
The writer is the General Manager of Al Arabiya. The article was published in the London-based Asharq al-Awsat on Sept. 19, 2012