Close but not together: Egypt and Iran seek Syria political exit

Dina Ezzat, Sunday 5 May 2013

Cairo and Tehran are working on a peace deal for Syria ‘to the liking of Al-Assad,’ but this will not mean normalisation of relations between them

In this photo released by the official website of the Iranian presidency office, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, second right, welcomes Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi for the opening session of the Nonaligned Movement, NAM, summit, in Tehran, Iran, Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012(Photo:AP)

Regional and Western diplomats in Cairo have told Ahram Online that Cairo and Tehran are both working on a blueprint for a peace plan for Syria that could be “swallowed” by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

The plan that is being discussed is essentially inspired by the Geneva parameters that were drafted by Lakhdar Brahimi, former UN-Arab League envoy, which allow for a gradual transformation of power "under Al-Assad" and would not force Al-Assad to step down.

What brings Cairo, where resides the highest Sunni entity Al-Azhar, and Tehran, the capital of Middle Eastern Shiism, together is one basic fear: foreign military action against Syria.

Egyptian and Iranian diplomats are terse in their remarks, even off the record. However, both agree there is this “growing pressure in Washington to get [US President Barack] Obama to give the go ahead,” for limited but forceful military intervention to end the intransigence of the Al-Assad regime after two years of civil war with the opposition.

“There is a growing pressure on Obama. One could say that yes it somehow started in Israel, but there are other players in the region that could benefit from a quick end to the Al-Assad regime,” commented an Egyptian diplomat.

He added: “From our point of view, this is not something that we could agree to — no matter what disagreements we have with Al-Assad's regime. We are firmly opposed to any military intervention against Syria.”

According to this diplomat, this was not necessarily the case within the Egyptian regime a few months ago, but it has evolved to be so. “Now we all agree that it is only through a political deal that this Syria matter can be fixed," he said.

Meanwhile, an Iranian diplomat shared only a few words: “Tehran will do everything it can to serve the interests of the Syrian people and of course a war is not in the interest of our dear Syrian brothers.”

The deal that is currently being discussed in Cairo, Terhan, Moscow — yet another Al-Assad ally — and of course Washington involves a gradual halt to all forms of hostilities with the presence of an Arab-international monitoring mechanism, and eventually a call for early presidential elections.

“Al-Assad had wanted to leave only in 2014 when his term in office ends. We are not at all far from this date and if we take into consideration the steps required to start and solidify a ceasefire in Syria and then start a process for presidential elections, then we are practically talking early 2014,” suggested another Egyptian diplomat.

Meanwhile, Cairo-based Western diplomats said that the preparations for a possible "military move" or "military choice" against Al-Assad, “if he chooses to use weapons of mass destruction against his people,” are underway, albeit at a slow pace and with the consent of some of Syria’s neighbours, especially Turkey and Jordan.

“We hope we are not going to get to that point, but this depends on his friends (Iran and Russia) to convince him that he cannot resist for long,” said a Cario-based European diplomat.

According to the Iranian diplomat, Al-Assad had already given up on an earlier plan to run for the 2014 presidential elections. “I don’t think he thinks he will run for another term in office,” the Iranian diplomat said.

On another front, Cairo and Tehran do not seem keen to use this opportunity of joint regional diplomacy to restore full diplomatic ties between them. This seems to be particularly so with Cairo, which has been previously open to ideas of working with Tehran and of counting on different forms of Iranian economic assistance in return for flexibility but not normalisation.

Concerned government sources in Cairo say that the coming months might witness a considerable step up in the volume of Iranian tourists to Egypt, especially to Egyptian Red Sea and Mediterranean resorts. Cairo is also potentially willing to work with Tehran on some multilateral matters as it has done before in relation to the declaration of the Middle East as a weapons of mass destruction free zone.

“Normalisation is going to happen, but it will take a bit of time to streamline a few matters,” said an Egyptian government source.

Security seems to be the key issue for both Cairo and Tehran. Cairo is particularly concerned about what its officials qualify as “bad Iranian influence” on radical Muslim militant “pockets” in Sinai and Gaza.

“They are giving us a headache and they are annoying Hamas in Gaza,” according to a security source in Egypt.

Tehran, for its part, is not comfortable with the “unhelpful” pressure that Cairo is exerting over the Sunni leadership in Iraq to obstruct a possible deal between the Iran-allied ruling Shia government in Baghdad and Sunni communities — even under the umbrella of the Arab League.

Sources on both sides said that these issues were among many matters examined during a recent high-level presidential team visit to the Iranian capital.

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