Today's Coming Crisis Movie

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Iran courts post-Mubarak Egypt, worrying allies

One of Egypt's ruling generals took great pains this week to reassure his American audience: the military-led caretaker government has no intention of mending ties with Iran, a longtime foe and regional rival.

But once an elected government takes over from Egypt's interim rulers in coming months, it would have to be responsive to public opinion, Maj. Gen. Mohammed Al-Assar said in a speech to a think tank in Washington, suggesting that a different course is then possible.

Iran has been strongly courting Egypt since the February fall of Hosni Mubarak, seeking to break its isolation and extend its influence in the Middle East. The prospect has alarmed Egypt's allies — particularly Saudi Arabia and the Arab countries of the Gulf, as well as Israel, all of which fear increasing Iranian power in the Middle East.

With its own suspicions of Iran and wary of alienating its allies, Egypt is unlikely to run into an embrace with Iran. But how much it does improve ties will be a major indicator of how far its future government will take a more independent foreign policy after decades under Mubarak, who stuck closely to the United States' line in the region.

"What we might be witnessing in the next few months is a struggle within Egypt to define and redefine Egyptian foreign policy," said Fawaz Gerges, head of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics.

There is strong popular support in Egypt for a foreign policy that does not so strongly mirror Washington's, which proponents argue will help restore the country's clout as a regional leader. For most Egyptians, the top priority is to back off from the close cooperation that the Mubarak regime had with Israel on economic and security issues.

But it could also mean an easing of Mubarak's staunchly anti-Iran stance. One of the leading contenders for the Egyptian presidency, ex-Arab League chief Amr Moussa, argues that Egypt would gain from peaceful or less tense relations with Iran. (more)