The devil’s triangle: Turkey, Iran and Egypt

The devil’s triangle: Turkey, Iran and Egypt

It came first as a surprise when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced a proposal for regional talks between Turkey, Iran and Egypt on resolving the Syrian crisis following his meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Baku October 2012. Hence it was no longer a surprise when Ahmadinejad said that the three countries are moving toward cooperation on Syria right after the trilateral meeting between the three leaders in Egypt during the 12th Summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) early this month.

That trip of Ahmadinejad to Cairo happens to be the first in three decades by an Iranian leader since the relationship between the two countries were put in a deep freeze in the wake of the Iranian Revolution in 1979. In addition to this unpromising historical background and the constraints caused by their Sunni-Shia divide, the pressure exerted by the U.S. and Gulf monarchies on Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi to keep his distance from Iran makes the relationship between Iran and Egypt more than complicated. Morsi’s economic and political troubles at home will further discourage him from risking the alienation of his allies.

Even so, relations between the two countries have warmed since the toppling of Egypt’s former president, Hosni Mubarak. Egypt’s rapprochement with Iran underscores Cairo’s intention to carry out an independent foreign policy and its effort to improve its ties with regional powers. Iran’s motivation also speaks for itself. It not only needs to break out of its regional and international isolation but is also trying to use Egypt as a partner to compete in the Middle East, particularly against Turkey. Last week, in a letter to Morsi endorsed by 17 Iranian experts and academics, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called on the Egyptian President to adopt the “Iranian model” for Egypt, listing the scientific and cultural achievements of revolutionary Iran.

Likewise, when Erdoğan visited Cairo in November 2011 he described the Turkish system of a Western-style secular republic with a market economy as the best model for Egypt. However, when he advised Egyptians to draw up a constitution based on the principles of secularism, the term “secularism” was equated with “anti-Islam” by Egyptians, drawing an immediate rebuke from the Muslim Brotherhood. This incident showcased that it is only a matter of time before the wide discrepancy in perceptions and respective political cultures is reflected in bilateral relations.

Despite the bilateral drawbacks with Egypt, the regional developments dictate that both Turkey and Iran restore their relations with Cairo. As Turkey and Iran compete throughout the region, the regional balance of power will lean toward the party that complies with that dictation. However, since neither Ankara nor Tehran could afford to put itself on the front line against each other, the most plausible way seems to be turning this Bermuda triangle into a trilateral alliance. Their need for each other in this devil’s triangle has never been more desperate.