After Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi embraced Iranian President Muhammad Ahmadinejad at the summit of the Organization of Islamic States Saudi Arabia, sources in the office of the Egyptian presidency announced that Morsi was planning to visit Tehran for the summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) at the end of August. The NAM grouping of mostly Third World countries was first established in 1961 as a neutral alternative to the West and the Soviet bloc. This year it is holding its meeting with heads of state in Iran.
This would be the first visit of an Egyptian president to Iran since the fall of the Shah and the Islamic Revolution that followed in 1979. The reports of Morsi’s possible visit to Tehran have generated wide speculation whether he, as the first Egyptian president from the Muslim Brotherhood, could manage to pull off a major reconciliation between Sunni Muslims, led by Egypt, and the Shiites, led by Iran.
This reconciliation has been an aspiration of the Muslim Brotherhood since the days of its founder, Hassan al-Banna. There were also Iranian militants who modeled their organizations on the Muslim Brotherhood, like the Iranian “Fedayeen of Islam” and their assassination squads who operated in the 1940s. In fact, it was no less than Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who translated into Persian the writings of the Muslim Brotherhood’s chief ideologue Sayyid Qutb, who was put to death by the Egyptians in 1966. The admiration between the two Islamist movements was mutual. After the 2006 Second Lebanon War, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and its previous general guide, Muhammad Mahdi Akef, began to openly support Iran.
But despite this history, there are presently a number of challenges that will make any Sunni-Shiite reconciliation facilitated by President Morsi a daunting task. First, of all there is the Syrian uprising and its likely impact on the Arab world in the years ahead. It is now indisputable that Iran is not only backing the regime of Bashar al-Assad with funding and weapons. Tehran is also deploying its Revolutionary Guards on the ground and they are involved in attacks on Syrian civilians.
In other words, from Homs to Allepo, Iranian Shiite soldiers are killing Sunni Arabs. These Persian-speaking troops have launched a blood vendetta with the Sunni Arab world that will not be quickly forgotten. How Morsi can embrace the Iranian leadership in Tehran who are responsible for the deaths of thousands of Sunni Arabs, including members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, is difficult to fathom.
Second, within the Muslim Brotherhood there are still powerful voices who opposed any reconciliation with Iran. Since 2008, Sheikh Youssef Qaradawi, regarded as the spiritual head of the Global Muslim Brotherhood, has warned that the Shiites want “to invade” Sunni societies with the backing of Iran and convert Sunnis to Shia Islam. He also described the Shiites as heretics. His language played on the insecurity of Sunni Arabs who felt that with the fall of Saddam Hussein, they had lost control of Iraq which came under the domination of its Shiite majority.
A third constraint on any reconciliation between the Sunnis and the Shiites, led by Iran, comes from the Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have no illusions about Iran’s goals and its use of Shiite Islam to threaten their vital interests. The perpetrators of the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing, according to U.S. court documents, were Saudi Shiites who were recruited and trained by Hezbollah in Lebanon. Their orders came from senior levels in the Iranian government.
This year the U.S. disclosed a plot by the Revolutionary Guards to use a Mexican drug cartel to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington. In the meantime, Saudi Arabia is waging a proxy war with Iran over the Shiite rebellion in Bahrain; in Yemen, where Zayidi Shiites have been engaged in an insurgency against the Yemeni government; and in Syria, where both Saudi Arabia and Qatar are supplying the war against Assad’s Alawite regime, which as already noted, has been terrorizing Syrian Sunnis.
Thus if Morsi wants to build a new relationship with Iran, he will face serious problems with Riyadh, to whom he has recently turned for financial help. There have been reports that, in the end, one should not be surprised if Morsi does not go to Tehran, but his calculations will undoubtedly be influenced by the fact that United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has decided to attend the NAM summit. Whatever Morsi decides, it will take a great deal more than a hug with Ahmadinejad, for the Muslim Brotherhood to alter the relations between Iran and the Sunni Arab states.
This post first appeared in Israel Hayom.