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Will he, won’t he? Morsi dilemma over Non-Aligned Movement conference in Tehran

If there is one thing Mohammed Morsi can be sure of, it’s that his every move is being scrutinised, as regional powers and world observers alike watch to see where the new Egyptian president will forge allegiances and alliances.

His latest diplomatic headache is over an invitation to the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) conference, taking place in Tehran later this month. NAM was formed in 1961 as a platform for third-world and developing countries who did not want to be tied to the major Cold War powers America and the Soviet Union. Egypt was a key player in NAM’s formation, and the movement now has 120 member states and 21 states with observer status, including nearly all African, South American and Asian countries.

Yet, for Morsi, this year’s NAM conference is turning into another battleground in the Middle East’s modern “Cold War” between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

After receiving an invitation last week, the Egyptian government was reticent about whether Morsi would attend, with London-based newspaper Al-Hayat reporting that a more junior minister would go in his place. That, though, was not the end of the story. The Iranian vice-president, Hamid Baghaei, has travelled to Cairo to meet with Morsi and hand him an invitation to the conference. While the outcome is yet to be announced, this already signals a new era in diplomatic relations between the two countries. Ties were cut after the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and Egypt’s subsequent peace treaty with Israel, making Baghaei the most senior Iranian official to visit Cairo for more than three decades.

Why the charm offensive from Iran? Throughout the Arab Spring and its aftermath, the country has held that it could forge good relationships with the new Islamist governments that have replaced the old, pro-West dictators. The Muslim Brotherhood, with its emphasis on pan-Islamic co-operation, could be seen in some ways as a natural ally for Iran. It is no coincidence that Tehran hailed Morsi’s election as an “Islamic awakening”. Iran is particularly keen to shore up these relationships given international pressure over its support of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria and continued tension with the west over its nuclear programme. If reports are to be believed, it intends to use the NAM conference to press for a resolution recognising the right of developing countries to pursue nuclear power and to enrich uranium. This is in opposition to western powers, which have imposed economic sanctions and political pressure on Iran to stop its nuclear programme. A resolution would help the country to counter its growing isolation and strengthen its case against the west.

Diplomatic relations between Egypt and Iran may be softening, but that is not the whole story. Indeed, we must not forget Morsi’s first international trip as president was to Riyadh, the Saudi capital. The Saudi monarchy had strong ties to ousted President Hosni Mubarak, and has long been suspicious of the Brotherhood’s Islamist populism. With Egypt suffering electricity shortages and dwindling financial aid, Morsi is well aware that he cannot afford to alienate his wealthy neighbours in the Gulf. Forging too strong an alliance with Iran – which Saudi Arabia blames for stoking the Shi’ite rebellion in neighbouring Bahrain – would certainly strain relations.

Indeed, Morsi faces a difficult balancing act. Although the public in Egypt are, for the most part, vehemently anti-Israel and would like to see their government tearing up the peace treaty and standing up to America, the Egyptian military receives about $1.3bn a year in aid from the US. This shows, yet again, how the alliances favoured by Mubarak are embedded in the financial structure of the state. Accordingly, the new government has pledged to honour international peace treaties, including that contentious accord with Israel.

It is also worth noting that while pan-Islamic co-operation is a nice idea, in practice the Sunni-Shia divide remains strong (and underpins the tension between Riyadh and Tehran). Morsi’s decision on the NAM conference is yet to be announced. If he does defy expectations and attends, the arrival of an Egyptian president in Tehran will be a major landmark. Nevertheless, given the situation and the regional power dynamics at play, it seems unlikely that relations between Sunni-dominated Egypt and Shia-dominated Iran will shift significantly in the near future.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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