Can Egypt Defuse the Iranian Nuclear Crisis?

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has a historic opportunity to help resolve the Iranian-Israeli nuclear imbroglio by leveraging Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Tel Aviv and exploiting its newfound goodwill with Tehran.
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Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has a historic opportunity to help resolve the Iranian-Israeli nuclear imbroglio by leveraging Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Tel Aviv and exploiting its newfound goodwill with Tehran. Morsi is well-positioned to broker a "cool peace" and prevent Israel and/or the United States from launching airstrikes against Iranian nuclear facilities. However, this will only be possible if all parties involved put aside ideological differences, focus on true underlying interests and come to the table with properly managed expectations.

Of course, the idea will be rendered a nonstarter if Egypt and Iran do not continue developing their nascent relationship. Despite Morsi's dramatic denunciation of Syria's Assad regime, Iran's chief ally, his visit to Tehran for the nonaligned summit last week was monumental. It was the first time an Egyptian president set foot on Iranian soil since 1979, when the two countries broke off diplomatic relations after President Anwar Sadat signed the Camp David peace accord with Israel.

Iran now sees Egypt as the leader of the Arab world and a potential strategic partner that can help end its isolation. Morsi, for his part, has included Iran as part of a regional solution for ending the violence in Syria, proposing that Egypt, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia work jointly to safely transition Assad from office while allowing the Syrians to establish a representative government. That Iranian leaders appear open to this idea represents a seismic shift from their position of supporting Assad at all costs, for fear of Western/Saudi regional dominance. Hence, Egypt might be able to entice the Iranians into curbing their nuclear ambitions while getting them to accede to enrich uranium solely for nonlethal applications at a level agreeable to the international community.

Meanwhile, Israel has plenty of reasons to support an Egyptian-led initiative. The Israelis are not only paranoid that Egypt might refuse to uphold the '79 peace treaty but are fearful of losing their only ally in the region. Egypt could alleviate these concerns in exchange for an Israeli guarantee not to attack Iran, assuming Iran vows to use its nuclear power for domestic purposes only.

I proposed the concept of Egypt as peacemaker to a few regional experts, including the always colorful Pepe Escobar who believes there's a strong possibility that Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood (MB) will start injecting Camp David into the "Big Picture." Escobar elaborated: "...if the MB really articulates an independent foreign policy over the next two to three months, with even a hint that Camp David should be renegotiated (over 90% of Egyptians would support it), Bibi-Barak better get real."

Former Indian diplomat MK Bhadrakumar informed me that the letter of Egypt's agreement with Israel isn't as critical as the actions taken to implement it: "What matters is the real time security cooperation, which is not going to be there as it used to be in the Hosni Mubarak era." In other words, Tel Aviv's concerns are legitimate, which means the Israelis might be more amenable to engaging in serious negotiations.

The enemies of compromise are the hardliners within each country, fringe elements that wield a disproportionate amount of power. Israeli ultra-conservatives want Iran to be devoid of any type of nuclear power regardless of application, while neocons in the U.S. are in lockstep with the right wing in Israel. Iran's clerics seem unrelenting in their pursuit of a nuclear weapon, seeing it as the ultimate expression of the Islamic revolution, while Morsi is under pressure from his radical Sunni constituents to sever ties with the West, Israel and Shia Iran.

But the alternatives to a reasonable settlement are not too appealing. Airstrikes would not terminate Tehran's nuclear program. They would, however, empower extremists and motivate Iran to accelerate the development of an atomic weapon as a deterrent against future attacks. Such a move would also turn the Iranian population against the West even further. Current sanctions, which are mostly hurting ordinary Iranians, have enabled the clerics to depict the U.S. as the Great Satan, once again. A nuclear Iran acting as a counterbalance to Israel seems like a reasonable hypothesis, on paper. However, in actuality Iran could trigger an arms race because its Sunni rivals are unlikely to sit idly by as Iran becomes a nuclear power. Thus, it's hard to argue that a nuclearized Iran would somehow bring stability to the Middle East.

The problem with Egypt taking on the heavy responsibility of impartial interlocutor is that it's on the verge of financial implosion and will have its hands full reviving its own economy to worry about Iran and Israel. On the other hand, because Egypt lacks an economic base upon which it can project real geopolitical power, it should be willing to enhance other sources of influence. The Egyptian regime has amassed a considerable amount of moral capital due to its legitimacy as the end product of a popular revolution. To many, Egypt represents the very essence of the Arab Spring. Given that "soft power" is its only true diplomatic weapon at this juncture, Egypt should be keen to broker a détente between Israel and Iran seeing that it will only further bolster its standing in the region.

Above all, each stakeholder -- the U.S., Egypt, Iran and Israel -- must be willing to make significant concessions, or all will be lost. The final outcome will likely not fully satisfy any of the participants, who will have to muster the requisite political courage to face scathing criticism at home for "settling." But, as Bismarck once remarked, "Politics is the art of the possible."

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