In his recent debut on the international stage, Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi clearly laid out his first major foreign-policy objective. Speaking at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) meeting on Syria on August 15, he stated that “It is time for the Syrian regime to leave.” Then again on August 30, speaking in Tehran, Morsi called for Iran to join Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia in forcing a regime change: “Syria is the responsibility of all of us and will not stop until there is real intervention to stop it.”
In office for less than two months, Morsi has made a large leap from his inaugural address, in which he merely stated, “The shedding of the Syrian people’s blood must stop.” Egypt’s new president has paid lip service to other international causes popular with the Egyptian street and especially the Muslim Brotherhood, from which Morsi hails, including support for the Palestinians. But these recent speeches represented the new Egypt’s first attempt to re-exert its influence by urging a contact group of regional power brokers to manage the Syrian crisis.
Morsi’s call for the removal of Syrian president Bashar Assad came almost a year after President Barack Obama insisted “the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” Despite shared ends, however, Morsi’s Syria initiative has been viewed by some as a slap at the United States and its regional allies because of the inclusion of Iran in the contact group.
The United States has been attempting to isolate Iran diplomatically, and many Arab nations—especially Saudi Arabia—are concerned about Iranian actions throughout the Arab Awakening in general and in Syria in particular. Indeed, U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton ruled out including Iran in any multilateral effort to stop the bloodshed in Syria two months before Morsi’s proposal.
According to some reports, Morsi’s contact-group initiative was dead on arrival “because some of the participating countries didn’t agree” with Iranian involvement. After all, Syria is a close ally in Iran’s “resistance axis,” and Iran already has gone to great lengths to support the regime’s survival with training, weapons, surveillance technology and, reportedly, even troop deployment. The Syrian opposition, according to a representative of the Syrian National Council, is also suspicious that Morsi could get Iran to drop its support for Assad.
For thirty years, Hosni Mubarak was a close U.S. partner—some would say lackey—for regional security and stability. Now, every foreign-policy move Morsi makes is closely watched for what it says about U.S.-Egyptian relations. If Morsi’s initiative moves forward, however, would it really harm U.S. regional goals?
Despite the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s call for international intervention in the conflict, and the apparent U.S. position that diplomacy has hit a dead end, Morsi does not seem to be there yet. A year behind Obama in calling for the regime’s downfall, he appears to be in the stage the United States found itself until this summer: certain it could convince Syria’s major international benefactor—in the case of the United States, Russia—to abandon the regime.
Morsi recognizes that a diplomatic solution in to the Syrian crisis must include Iran, Syria’s major regional benefactor. One can argue whether this could succeed, but Morsi is not the first to propose including Iran in a negotiated resolution; former UN special envoy Kofi Annan also floated the idea. In addition, the idea of doing so is not necessarily a slap at America and its regional allies.
But Syria may be past the point of a diplomatic solution. Engaging Iran on Syria does counter U.S. aims of isolating the Islamic Republic in the short term. Morsi’s initiative, though, would be a poisoned chalice for the Iranian regime.
In a contact group consisting of Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the deck is already stacked against Iran. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has been vocally supporting the Syrian uprising. Morsi’s goal is for the Brotherhood’s Syrian affiliate—an organized group within the mainly Sunni opposition—to have significant influence in a post-Assad Syria. Turkey likely desires a similar outcome. Saudi Arabia, if a crisis simulation can be a guide, may care less about Sunni domination in Syria than making sure any outcome means Assad’s Alawi sect is out of power and Iran loses its interests there. Iran alone would be left arguing for a way to keep the Alawis in power—and most of its interests intact.
Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia desire similar outcomes; Cairo has played host to opposition conferences, and the latter two are also involved in aiding the Syrian opposition. But Iran’s interests are so at odds with the other three that the contact group is guaranteed to fail. As Morsi recently told his Iranian hosts, the world has a “moral duty” to stand with the Syrian people against the Assad regime. The failure of Morsi’s initiative will be placed at the feet of the Islamic Republic, exposing its unyielding support for the Assad regime in the face of a growing civilian body count.
One should consider whether the policy of isolating the Iranian regime is an end in and of itself or a means of limiting its regional influence and perhaps changing its behavior. If isolation were a means to these greater objectives, Morsi’s play would actually support U.S. goals in the medium or long term. As a senior U.S. military leader recently said, Iran's support for Syria will ensure Iran is viewed negatively in the region.
In his first international interview since becoming president, Morsi told Reuters, “We are not against anyone but we are for achieving our interests.” In Syria and the broader region, Egypt and Iran have many conflicting interests. Even if Morsi’s Egypt does initiate diplomatic relations with Iran, Egypt will continue to have more regional goals in common with the United States than with Iran. A post-Mubarak Egypt should be expected to take a different course than the previous era. But Egypt will continue to work with the United States when their respective national interests are aligned.
Zack Gold is a Washington-based Middle East analyst. Follow him on Twitter: @ZLGold.