Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi made waves last week at the Nonaligned Movement Summit in Tehran, insulting his hosts and their allies by calling the Syrian civil war a “struggle . . . against an oppressive regime that has lost its legitimacy.” Together with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s sharp words about Iran’s nuclear program and condemnation of its anti-Israeli rhetoric, it is becoming clear that the summit is turning into a public embarrassment for the Islamic Republic.
This is a pleasant surprise. Morsi’s trip to Tehran had caused severe indigestion in Washington, where there were fears that he intended to restore long-dormant relations. That would have been foolish on many levels. Another fear was that Morsi would legitimize Iran by his presence, as exemplified in Thomas Friedman’s recent New York Times column “Morsi’s Wrong Turn.” Friedman argues that Morsi must remember that he rose to power in a peaceful uprising that led to a fair election, and that accordingly he should be “ashamed of himself. . . [for] lending his legitimacy to an Iranian regime that brutally crushed just such a movement in Tehran.”
Friedman has a point—even though Morsi’s speech angered Iran, it might be aired (as happened with Ban Ki-Moon) with a false translation. Fars News, a hardline Iranian outlet, once published an interview with Morsi that he claimed had been completely fabricated. Tehran has a limited but real ability to turn its rivals into sock puppets, and Iranians who do not have access to international media—more than there should be, but fewer than you’d think—might be duped and think Morsi backs the regime, even though his speech condemned their ally.
But Friedman’s broader message—that Morsi should not go to Iran because it is a dictatorship—is flawed. Morsi serves Egyptian interests when he pushes Cairo back into the international arena after years of being overshadowed by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and even tiny Qatar. He has wisely attempted to make Egypt a key player on Syria by proposing a new contact group of the relevant Middle Eastern powers, including Iran. An understanding with Tehran is a necessary component of a Syrian peace. Morsi’s initiative will probably fail, but even one meeting of an Egyptian-backed contact group would be a key step back into the international spotlight that any self-respecting Egyptian leader—Islamist, secularist, leftist, Copt, or liberal—must seek for such a pivotal state.