Iranians have been following the dramatic denouement of the Egyptian revolution with keen interest. Although Tehran ranks as merely an ancillary actor in the Egyptian drama, recent events have highlighted the profound – if imperfect – historical resonance in each state’s revolutionary upheaval. That historical perspective informs Iran’s view of events in Egypt, and compounds the impetus for circumspection that can be discerned in its leadership’s recent behavior.
Viewing the world through the lens of Iran is a tricky business. It can be tempting to make too much of the Iranian place in the world or to impose a preferred narrative as the overarching interpretation of all its actions and rhetoric. In Washington, Iran is perpetually judged as either emboldened or on the run – almost never anything in between. On Egypt today, as I’ll argue below, neither extreme is quite correct. The revival of massive anti-government protests in Egypt and the military ouster of president Mohammad Morsi has elicited diverse interpretations within Iran. Taken as a whole, the Iranian commentary betrays an acute sense of trepidation about the volatility that has engulfed the broader Middle East over the past three years.
Let me begin by stating the obvious: the Iranians are not players in Egypt, not in any serious fashion. They have not— and, for obvious budgetary and diplomatic reasons, cannot— insert themselves into Egyptian affairs with anything like the immediacy or the magnitude of the Gulf states, which have moved quickly to offer mammoth financial support to the post-Morsi government.
At the same time, the specter of Iranian encroachment across the region colors the views of some Arabs and international observers alike toward the early ascendance of the Muslim Brotherhood in post-Mubarak Egypt. Although the MB is ideologically and historically distinct from Iran’s peculiar, Shi’a interpretation of political Islam, the victory of an MB-affiliated candidate in Egypt and the broader success that the Islamists appeared to be achieving elsewhere in the region fed into the Iranian narrative of these developments as part of an “Islamic Awakening.” The threat posed by Iran surely added impetus to the decision on the part of the Gulf states to bankroll Egypt’s new military-installed leadership.
Predictably, some have sought to identify Morsi’s removal— and the massive public spurning of his leadership that preceded it— as either a clear-cut gain for Tehran, or another welcome setback for its revolutionary leadership. For my part, I can see some persuasive elements of both arguments. What is more interesting to me, however, is that Iranian reaction has encompassed a wide gamut of perspectives underpinned by a common appeal for steps to avoid further instability in Egypt, and by extension for the rest of the region.
In fact, what is most evident from a close reading of Iran’s posture toward events in Egypt is the sense that the Iranian leadership is monitoring the regional flux cautiously. Instead of the Machiavellian masters of regional chaos that some analysts and officials see, Tehran today is more of an anxious bystander where Egypt is concerned, dissecting the unpredictable arc of political dynamics and sectarian frictions with a worried eye for what these may mean for Iran’s domestic stability and place in the region.
Strangely enough, much of what has been said and written within Iran on Egypt has been, dare I say, reasonable, and might even be welcomed by Iran’s most strenuous critics were it not for the source and the rank hypocrisy in much of the rhetoric. Iranian officials have condemned violence against peaceful protestors, endorsed free and fair elections, and appealed for a national dialogue, all of which it might be noted echo demands articulated by Iran’s own Green Movement during its own electoral upheaval four years ago. And although official statements and sermons have emphasized the conspiratorial mindset that characterizes the Islamic Republic’s ultimate authority, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the wide-ranging opinions expressed on Egypt suggest that the political establishment remains uncertain how Egyptian developments will unfold, and how Tehran can position itself best for what may come.
As a result, Iranian denunciations of the military role in unseating Morsi have been counterbalanced by critiques of Morsi’s attempts at an extra-constitutional power grab, as well as his standoffishness toward Tehran, Syria’s regime, and other anti-Western forces in the region. Amidst the predictable harangues against Western and Zionist interference in the democratic intentions of the Egyptian people, there have also been anxieties expressed about the empowerment of hard-line Sunni Salafists and the worsening of anti-Shi’a violence across the region.
In the initial aftermath, official Iranian criticism of the Morsi ouster provoked howls of outrage from Cairo. Tehran quickly shifted into damage-control mode, dispatching its Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, a Western educated nuclear engineer who is one of the few officials whose voice is welcomed by Arab capitals. In a phone call yesterday, Salehi assured his Egyptian counterpart that “it is the Egyptian people who should determine the fate of their country,” and just for good measure praised Egypt’s army as “a national army.” Shortly thereafter, Salehi headed for Ankara to consult with Turkish authorities on the Egyptian situation.
Iran’s rhetoric and its nascent shuttle diplomacy reveals the element of conservatism that underlies Iran’s foreign policy and, some might argue, the leadership’s recent turn toward moderation in managing its internal dynamics. Tehran may well be seeking regional hegemony, a charge invoked so frequently by American officials that it has lost any real meaning, but it is also seeking to preclude a regional implosion. Hence, the diplomatic forays (which have extended to more sensitive interests, such as Syria) and the efforts invested to avoid reopening the Mubarak-era rupture in its relationship with Egypt. In this sense, Tehran’s interests do intersect with some of its most determined regional adversaries, such as Saudi Arabia, even as their respective tactics continues to fuel conflict between them.
The Iranian leadership’s measured response to events in Egypt prompts some speculation about whether, and to what extent, the regional dynamics played into Tehran’s management of its domestic political challenges— most specifically, the recent presidential campaign. Some experts have speculated that the Syrian conflict helped to dissuade even the most frustrated Iranian reformists from boycotting the election or mounting a new round of protests against the regime, for fear of inadvertently inciting civil war. I think there is an argument to be made that the same regional environment played into the Iranian leadership’s decision to accede to the popular will in this ballot and avoid the blatant rigging of the vote that occurred in 2009. In this sense, the turmoil in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere in the region may be inducing some measure of moderation in Tehran.
Finally, the sobriety of the Iranian posture toward Egypt is also informed by Iran’s historical experience with revolution and upheaval, as well as its perennial (and not wholly unjustified) paranoia about the stability of the Islamic Republic today. While there are important differences between Egyptian and Iranian revolutions, Iran’s leadership knows a thing or two about the dangers that lurk within societies in the aftermath of an autocrat’s ouster, especially during the early years.
From the moment that the Shah left Iran in Iran’s revolution experienced profound contestation from a variety of different elements of society from the moment the Shah left the country. In July 1980, the Islamists uncovered a plot orchestrated by senior military commanders, under the leadership of the final pre-revolutionary prime minister. A year later, Iran’s first post-revolutionary president had been forced from office, and after a, fled the country in disguise, after he was declared an enemy of the state and began collaborating with a leftist opposition group. Unlike the Egyptian generals, the victorious faction in Iran’s post-revolutionary turmoil would not have been satisfied with the silence of a prison cell for a discredited adversary.