The expansion of Iranian influence following the eruption of the Arab Spring revolutions transformed the image of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) in Arab communities, especially in Sunni ones. The auxiliary role of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the suppression of the 2011 Syrian revolt against President Bashar al-Assad and attempting to create parallel security-military apparatuses in the Mashriq sub-region, has created a negative image. Having capitalized on its geopolitical gains, Iran is attempting to build up networks with local Arab Sunni communities in order to improve its image and create a broad constituency of Arab Sunni partners.
The Muslim Brotherhood networks, known as the Ikhwan, are a key target of Iran’s non-state actors’ diplomacy. The Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) is attempting to woo the Egyptian Ikhwan, the historical leader of the global Ikhwan network, as part of a wider effort to improve relations with Arab grassroots organizations. On one hand, the successful rejuvenation of historical ties with the Ikhwan in Egypt and the rest of the region will boost Tehran’s public diplomacy, and on the other hand, may help facilitate mediation with hostile actors. Therefore, the Arab Spring Revolutions, especially the Egyptian revolution, were turning points in re-defining relations with vital Arab Sunni actors.
For the Egyptian Ikhwan, the Egyptian Revolution in January 2011 represented a turning point in the Egyptian Ikhwan’s perception of regional political configurations and itself as a main actor. Concerning Iran, there was a mutual interest, between the Ikhwan in power in Egypt and the Islamic Republic, to re-shape relations to commensurate with the reconfiguration of regional political dynamics during the Arab Spring period. A legacy of cross-sectarian relations between the organization and the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) was an important factor.
Considering the Ikhwan’s hesitancy to make major shifts in Egypt’s foreign policy in the region, unwilling to further raise concern among key actors in the Gulf region, namely the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), about a rising Islamist regional axis, Iran was unsatisfied, and its expectations were not fulfilled by the Egyptian side.
The more Egyptian Ikhwan were closer to power in Egypt, the more the organization was careful with handling the ‘Iranian dossier’, with internal and external pressures mounting. While keeping the door open for communication in an unprecedented fashion, compared to his predecessor President Hosni Mubarak, the Ikhwan-affiliated President Mohammad Morsi refrained from making an Egyptian rapprochement with Iran. Rather, Cairo opted to de-escalate rising concerns of actors in the Gulf region.
Following the military coup against the Ikhwan-led government in Cairo, the organization sought solitude to reduce the crackdown in Egypt and in the region driven by the Gulf allies of the new Egyptian military-led government. In the initial stages, the post-coup Iranian media discourse ostensibly showed that Tehran was unenthusiastic to resume communication with the Ikhwan. On the other hand, later, the Ikhwan were justifying their reluctance to receive Iranian offers for support with their state of vulnerability which makes it difficult for them to engage with the Iranian side.
With internal fragmentation in the Egyptian Ikhwan developing, Iran commenced upon opening lines of communication with the evolving factions (old guards, new leadership front, and the confrontationists). Each of these factions has a different approach towards the organization’s foreign relations, and how to engage with Tehran. The old guards are more conservative in their approach towards Iran, and the confrontationist faction is the most open, with the new leadership front taking a middle-ground position.
With major high-ranking Egyptian Ikhwan members based in Turkey and Qatar, their respected factions are being influenced by the orientations of their hosting countries vis-a-vis Iran, even if this influence entails discouragement to maintaining a favourable approach towards Iran. The outlook of the Egyptian Ikhwan’s relations with Iran will be influenced, to a certain extent, by the positioning of their host countries in the changing regional dynamics of the Middle East.
Tamer Badawi is A PhD Student and Assistant Lecturer at the University of Kent researching politics and security with a focus on paramilitary groups in Iraq. He is an Associate Fellow with Al Sharq Strategic Research.
Osama Al-Sayyad is an Egyptian journalist and producer at Aljazeera network and TRT. His projects are focused on political Islam movements and civil-military relations in the MENA region. His work covers both investigative and data journalism.