Iran's dreams for influence stymied in Egypt

Associated Press Modified: June 14, 2012 at 2:45 am •  Published: June 14, 2012
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CAIRO (AP) — Iran once saw the Arab Spring uprisings as a prime opportunity, hoping it would open the door for it to spread its influence in countries whose autocratic leaders long shunned Tehran's ruling clerics. But it is finding the new order no more welcoming. Egypt is a prime example.

Egypt has sporadically looked more friendly toward Iran since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak 16 months ago, and the rise of the Islamists here fueled the expectations of Tehran's clerical regime that it could make inroads.

Instead, it has been met with the deep mistrust felt by many in mainly Sunni Muslim Egypt toward non-Arab, Shiite-dominated Iran — as well as Cairo's reluctance to sacrifice good relations with Iran's rivals, the United States and the oil-rich Arab nations of the Gulf.

In a sign of the mistrust, Egyptian security and religious authorities have raised an alarm in recent weeks that Iran was trying to promote Shiism in the country.

That brought warnings from the Sunni Islamists that Iran had hoped would be friendly to their religious-based leadership.

"Iran must realize that if it wants good relations with an Egypt that will soon regain its strength, it must bear in mind that Egypt holds high the banner of the Sunni faith," said Mohammed el-Sagheer, a lawmaker from the hard-line Gamaa Islamiya.

"Spreading Shiism in Egypt is not an issue of sectarian conflict, it is a question of national security."

Iran has also invited families of nearly 900 protesters killed during last year's uprising to honor them in Tehran, but most relatives declined the offer, with only a group of 27 agreeing to make the trip. They flew to Iran last week.

In a wider context, the new order in the Arab world is not going Tehran's way and it could even erode its influence and leave it more isolated.

"Arab Spring revolts have been a disaster for Iran," said Michael W. Hanna, a Middle East expert from New York's Century Foundation. "It wants to ride those revolts as an extension of its own revolution back in 1979, but it is not happening."

Instead, Iran has been losing its allure as an alternative model to authoritarian Arab regimes that fell victim to popular uprisings like Mubarak's, Moammar Gadhafi's in Libya or Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Ominously for Iran, it faces the possibility of the fall of its top Arab ally, the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad, and its replacement by Sunni rule.

The Assad dynasty — which belongs to the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiism — has maintained close ties with Tehran for more than 30 years. But it is now struggling to contain an uprising dominated by Syria's Sunni majority.

The fall of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who succeeded his father in 2000, would almost certainly weaken Hezbollah, Tehran's chief ally in Lebanon and a sworn enemy of Israel.

Iran has already seen one friend distance itself over the Syria turmoil. The leadership of the Palestinian militant Hamas group left its Damascus headquarters and relocated to Qatar which, together with Saudi Arabia, is calling for the arming of Syrian rebels.

For the past decade, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have been the cornerstones of the anti-Iran faction in the Middle East, trying to roll back its rising fortunes, which peaked with the ascent to power by Iraq's Shiites in 2003 and Hezbollah's 2006 war against Israel, a fight that elevated the Shiite group and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, to heroic status in the mostly Sunni Arab world.

Relations between Cairo and Tehran were tense throughout the 29-year rule of Mubarak, whose regime accused Iran of supporting homegrown militant Islamist groups and involvement in a 1995 assassination attempt against the ousted leader.

More recently, the two regional powerhouses quarreled publicly over Iran's alleged meddling in Iraq and over its support for Hezbollah and Hamas.

Moreover, Egypt traditionally sees itself as the guardian of Islam's dominant Sunni branch and as a protector of Arab culture against foreign influence, including that of Persian Iran.

Relations, however, appeared to be heading for a major breakthrough following Mubarak's ouster on Feb. 11, 2011, with Cairo approving an Iranian request for two naval ships to transit the Suez Canal on their way to Syria. The two vessels sailed through the canal in late February 2011, the first ones to do so since the Islamic Revolution.

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