Iran received the news of Egyptian President Morsi’s ouster by the military last week with mixed feelings. When Mubarak (“secular and Western”), Iran’s bitter and sworn enemy and a friend of the United States, was deposed this gave rise to hope in Iran that it would be possible to restore its shattered relations with Egypt more easily with an Islamic government headed by the Muslim Brotherhood. With the outbreak of the Arab Spring (known as the “Islamic Awakening” in Iran), Tehran argued that it was primarily influenced by the Islamic Revolution in 1979, and that this revolution had begun to sweep over the entire Middle East. The Egyptian revolution peaked on February 11, 2011, the same day as the celebration of the Revolution in Iran, a fact that even served to emphasize the symbolism and “divine intervention,” as Iran saw it.
This hope was rapidly crushed in Iran. It appears that despite public pronouncements and mutual visits (by Morsi to Iran and Ahmadinejad to Egypt), not only did the relations fail to improve, they also began to deteriorate, mainly because of Morsi’s pro-rebel stance in the Syrian crisis, which led to Egypt sever diplomatic relations with Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the murder of Shiite clergymen in Egypt, which illustrated the so-called Sushi (Sunni-Shiite) Divide, and mainly the peace treaties with Israel and relations with the United States.
The critical Iranian tone towards Egypt gradually increased in the months leading up to Morsi’s ouster. Throughout his year in office, Iran continued to view its relations with Egypt as part of its overall philosophy of resistance against Israel and continued US involvement in the Middle East. Therefore, the Syrian front was perceived as part of an all-out battle against the West and Israel, and as such, Iran could not accept the direction in which Morsi was moving, as he maintained the nature of his predecessor’s relations with Israel, the West and the pro-Western Gulf states.
After Morsi was deposed by the military, editorials in the Iranian press described Morsi’s “erroneous actions” at length, saying that at the end of the day, they are what led to his ouster. Some of the newspapers even unleashed the type of criticism that had been “reserved for Mubarak” and began referring to him as Pharaoh. They argued that Mubarak’s ouster alone was not enough to complete the revolution, and revolutions needed to take place in countries outside of Egypt and in Egypt’s set of priorities, primarily distancing themselves from the United States and Israel and moving closer to the Islamic countries, Iran and the “Resistance Front” against Israel (Hezbollah, Syria and Iran), which it leads.
It was further argued that while Mubarak had been ousted, the heads of the military and intelligence and security organizations remained in place. In other words, the head was replaced, but Egypt continued to manage its affairs as it had in the past, “a captive of US policy and influence,” as Friday prayer leader Ahmad Khatami put it, that generates incitement against the Shiites. The Friday prayer leader in Mashhad said that while the Islamic Brotherhood was elected because they are and Islamic party, they veered away from the principles of Islam and, in the end, were deposed.
Hassan Rouhani, President Elect of Iran, who will take office at the beginning of next month, is faced with a tough challenge. While he promised to restore Iran’s relations with its Arab neighbors, it would appear that the spirits of the past and dramatic changes that are sweeping across the Middle East are moving towards a clash between Shiites and Sunnis, Iranians and Arabs, East and West will continue to pursue him and to dictate his policies. Another difficulty Rouhani will have to face is the sense of security among the Iranian intelligence organizations and the IRGC, who are responsible for exporting the Revolution, disseminating Shiite Islam and courting the Shiites in regional countries. They view the recent developments and changes in the Middle East as an opportunity to increase subversive Iranian involvement and, as in the past, make it difficult to promote a conciliatory policy.
At home, in terms of Iran, Morsi failed where Iran’s Islamic Revolution succeeded. Morsi’s failure may reinforce the need to protect the Revolution against upheavals such as the Arab Spring for the Iranian leader and the IRGC, and the era of reforms promised by Rouhani and which is reminiscent of the good old “Khatami days.” The conservatives have already begun attempting to channel Rouhani onto the revolutionary track and the principle of Velyat-e faqih, warning against the entry of a reformist “fifth corps” into the Rouhani government. Iran may experience a similar process of the ouster or weakening of the President (Rouhani) in light of an attempt to push reforms through too quickly.