Recent Developments in the Middle East -September 1 2012

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While civil war rages on in Syria with no end game in sight, two countries which have seen momentous developments recently are Egypt and Iran — both countries by virtue of their size, population and resources stand out for their importance in the region. These developments are likely to have a significant impact on politics in the Middle East – a hugely important region, both strategically, economically and politically especially for major powers like the United States, Russia, China, Turkey and India, etc. These trends form the subject of this report.

In Egypt the recently elected President Mohamed Morsy a US educated engineer, has been able to consolidate his power with surprising swiftness. A member of the Muslim Brotherhood a conservative political grouping with a history of persecution in the Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak eras, Morsy’s achievement in consolidating his hold on power, after months of political turbulence, has impressed observers of the Middle East. An indication of his determination to say adieu to the Mubarak period was the change that Morsy carried out in the senior echelons of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). He retired the two senior most members of the SCAF and replaced them with his own choices. The Mubarak era outgoing officials were the septuagenarian Defense Minister Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Chief of Staff General Sami Anan (reportedly a close ally of the US), Intelligence Chief General Murad Muwafi as well as heads of the air force and navy. That Morsy was able to accomplish this large scale spring cleaning without any countervailing resistance from the all-powerful SCAF illustrates both his political dexterity and leger de main.

Secondly in a marked show of independence from post-Nasser Egypt, hitherto tied to the apron strings of the West, Morsy chose Iran and China as his first foreign destinations. Following his Tehran sojourn Morsy alighted in Beijing where he sought Chinese help in bolstering Egypt’s faltering economy. Bypassing of Washington and other Western capitals by Morsy was a not so subtle hint that the days of Egyptian subservience to Washington were over. This understandably caused some consternation in the US (epitomized by a breast beating lamentation penned by Tom Friedman in the New York Times) and other Western capitals, as they are unable in these early days of the Morsy presidency to gauge what changes he has in store for Egypt’s foreign relations. Chief among the US’s worries is whether a Morsy- led Egypt will reset Egypt- Israel relations. Brian Lehrer the influential talk show host of National Public Radio said on August 31, 2012 that the Morsy administration was a “work in progress.” He implied that it was too early to determine where Morsy would be taking Egypt in its foreign dealings.

Morsy’s visit to Iran raised hackles in Tel Aviv and concern in Washington. Morsy went to Iran to ceremonially hand over the baton to Iran as the new leader of the 120 odd group of nations known as the Non-Aligned Group. Under the Non-Aligned procedures, Iran had been elected as the next leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, a big diplomatic feather in its cap. While in Tehran, Morsy did not mince his words in condemning the Assad regime for its brutal killing of civilians in its efforts to quell the rebels of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).That sentiment was opposite that of the policy followed by his Iranian hosts who have supported their chief Arab ally, Assad, in his brutal suppression of the revolt against his minority regime.

The Non-Aligned summit in Tehran has reportedly developed a proposal to bring peace to Syria through the joint efforts of four countries: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran. The inclusion of Iran is undoubtedly a diplomatic triumph for the embattled clerical regime. The US and the West have been sidelined which will create disappointment and perhaps even anger in Western chancelleries who castigate Iran for helping prop up Assad’s tottering dictatorship in Syria.

But the larger question being posed by analysts is whether the Morsy visit to Tehran is a prelude to the restoration of full diplomatic relations between Egypt and Iran which were suspended in 1979. If this was indeed to happen down the road – contrary to vigorous efforts by Washington and Tel Aviv to isolate Iran as a pariah state – it would constitute an acknowledgement by Egypt of Iran as a major power in the Middle East. This cannot but be construed as a major diplomatic setback to the United States and Israel in its ongoing efforts to quarantine Iran and punish it for its alleged attempts to build nuclear weapons.

Iran will keep the Presidency of the Non-Aligned Group for the next three years and thus be in an advantageous position to use this numerically largest grouping of nations in the UN system, to project its views. Israel and the US had also tried to prevent Secretary General of the UN Ban Ki Moon from attending the Tehran meeting, but he demurred.

It is also possible that these diplomatic developments may conceivably make it more difficult for Israel or the US to launch preemptive strikes on Iran’s nuclear installations. If either of them decided to go ahead, singly or in concert, it would cause a maelstrom of international censure. So for the time being Iran seems to be achieving a higher diplomatic profile. It is not isolated like North Korea. I also feel that the Western countries would probably be reviewing their punitive sanctions policy against Iran because so far at least, despite the economic pain these restrictions are inflicting on Iran, they have failed to deter the latter from its present course on nuclear issues.

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