Photo-Op Diplomacy

Ahmadinejad’s trip to Egypt was about soft power – not about crafting a new alliance.

An irksome Iranian leader whose defiance to the West on energy issues
has made him a household name travels to Egypt. He hopes to find common
ground with the country’s increasingly “anti-imperialist” leadership. Many Egyptians welcome the rise of a strong anti-Western voice in the region while newspaper editorials hail the development of new axis stretching from Tehran to Cairo.

The year was 1951 and then Iranian Prime Minister Muhammed Mossadegh was returning to Iran after a triumphant appearance at the United Nations. Mossadegh’s meeting with Farouk I, the King of Egypt and the Sudan, was viewed as historic. In hindsight it appears nearly trivial: both leaders were overthrown within two years. In Egypt, the end of Farouk’s reign signaled the end of the most liberal period in the country’s recent history. In Iran, the way was paved for even greater authoritarian rule under the Shah.

History teaches us how quickly the situation in the Middle East can change. While it might be soon to judge the historical significance of Ahmadinejad’s recent visit to Cairo, we can draw at least one comparison. In 2009, US President Barack Obama traveled to Cairo as well. He, too, gave a high-profile speech and made many of the same stops that Ahmadinejad included in his recent itinerary.

Both Ahmadinejad’s and Obama’s visits weren’t primarily aiming at the creation of new regional alignments but should be seen as appeals to average Egyptians and Arabs across the Middle East – the part of the population which policy wonks refer to as “the Arab street.” Like Obama, Ahmadinejad intended to use his visit to break with the past and establish a new relationship with the Sunni world. Because of term limits, Ahmadinejad will not be able to seek re-election next year. At the moment, a complex political battle is being waged inside Iran to determine which faction will succeed him in office. The trip to Cairo was one way to boost his faction’s standing inside Iran and throughout the Middle East.

Indeed, Iran earned only obscure political victories during Ahmadinejad’s trip to Cairo. The most significant of those victories is the Senegalese agreement re-establish ties with Iran – an agreement that was brokered on the sidelines of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s “Islamic Summit.” In 2011, Senegal’s government had broken off ties with Iran after accusing the country of supplying arms to Senegalese rebels.

To Ahmadinejad, appearance was more important than concrete political victories. Indeed, the OIC Summit hosted at the Fairmont Hotel in Cairo served as a handy backdrop to his media appearances. While other world leaders darted through the lobby of the Hotel Fairmont during the conference, Ahmadinejad was all smiles as he strolled leisurely through the lobby, frequently stopping to pose for photos. “He does this everywhere he goes – he greets people and takes photos with hotel workers,” an Iranian diplomat gushed.

Immediately following the conclusion of the Summit, the Iranian embassy hosted a lavish party for Egyptian luminaries that included the liberal 2005 presidential candidate Ayman Nour as well as Egyptian religious authorities. Having courted the country’s elite, Ahmadinejad appealed to the mass of Egyptians when he switched from Farsi to Arabic and proclaimed: “Long live Egypt! Long live Iran! Egypt and Iran forever.” This rhetoric might not always appeal to President Morsi or other Egyptian leaders, but it surely energizes the “Arab street.”

Ahmedinejad remains one of the most popular figures in the Middle East. While public opinion in the region can be fickle, polls have repeatedly shown that a majority of Egyptians support the idea of a nuclear armed Iran on strictly realist terms: as a hedge against Israel. Indeed, Ahmadinejad remains popular precisely because he is associated with Iran’s nuclear program.

Ahmadinejad knows that the Egyptian-Iranian relationship has limits. Mohammed Morsi faces sectarian criticism of further rapprochement with Iran from Salafi parties within Egypt. Additionally, Egypt’s left and liberals are deeply critical of the Iranian position on Syria. Iranian diplomats I spoke with clearly had only modest goals for the visit: photo-ops and a boost to economic ties. But even if the Iranian president’s trip to Egypt did not yield any additional outcomes, Ahmadinejad should not be too disappointed. Like Mossadegh and Obama before him, he was treated to a tour of the pyramids at Giza.

Read more in this debate: Ragnar Weilandt, Abdullah Al-Arian, Joseph Hammond.

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