Ali Akbar Velayati, adviser to the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and former Iranian foreign minister, has recently become involved in the politicized issue of Egyptian-Iranian relations. He said, “The Muslim Brotherhood is closer to Tehran than any other Islamist group, and closer ideologically than any other Islamist current,” underscoring that “Iran supports the Muslim Brotherhood regime.”
Given the shrewd nature of Iranian politics, I doubt he was unaware that this type of comment would embarrass Mohamed Mursi and Egypt’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Mursi heads a country that is going through a transitional stage that is both critical and turbulent, and he is in urgent need of making amends with rest of the Egypt’s powerful Islamist factions.
These factions include the Salafist movement, which boasts significant sway in the Egyptian street and, more than any other group, has opposed Iranian attempts to spread its influence in Egypt. Velayati is aware that sectarian tension has reached unprecedented levels across the region. Iran has allied with Bashar Al-Assad’s regime on both an ideological and political level, willing to turn a blind eye to his crimes and the slaughter of his own people, which in turn has provoked outrage against the Iranian regime.
Velayati’s statement is embarrassing to the new Egyptian leadership, as evidenced by the quick reply offered by Muslim Brotherhood official spokesperson Dr. Ahmed Aref, who said, “The Muslim Brotherhood has nothing to do with Shia Islam, and it will never condone anything except Sunni Islam . . . The Muslim Brotherhood has repeatedly confirmed on numerous occasions that the Sunni faith is a red line which we will not allow anyone to cross. If there are any attempts by any faction to infiltrate Egyptian society, we will stop them.” He highlighted that relations between Egypt and Iran are, “ . . . political in nature and have nothing to do with religion whatsoever.”
Iran has adopted a method characterized by self-restraint and patience in its rapprochement efforts with the hitherto reticent Egyptians. Before Velayati’s comment, former Iranian president Khatami tolerated the awkward situation that Al-Azhar had put him in when while on a visit he was surprised by an unscheduled press conference after his meeting with the Sheikh of Al-Azhar. However, the biggest surprise came from the Sheikh of Al-Azhar’s adviser when, with Khatami at his side, he stated that Al-Azhar and the Egyptians reject the slandering of the Companions of the Prophet and that they will not tolerate any attempts to Shi’a-ize the Egyptian people. Iran also failed to take the hint when Mursi cut short his first visit to Tehran to a mere couple of hours and excused himself from meeting with the Supreme Leader and President Ahmadinejad. Moreover, during his speech in Tehran, Mursi praised the Four Caliphs, which was considered by some to be a breach of diplomatic norms.
All of this brings us to the conclusion that Iran’s long-term strategy to expand its regional influence had originally planned to start in earnest once the revolution in Syria had been crushed. It turned out instead that Syria itself was crushed, and consequently Iran needed to find an ally equal to or greater than Syria in strategic importance, and thus its gaze settled on Egypt. It is incumbent upon the Gulf, its governments, media, and cultural elites, to curb their frustration over the Brotherhood’s rise to power, and prevent Iranian rapprochement with Egypt. Opposing Egypt politically, economically, and in the media would only create a rift that will later grow into a chasm that Iran will certainly exploit. If Iran does succeed in expanding its influence over Egypt, the results would be disastrous for the entire region, and especially for the Gulf states.