CAIRO -- Newly activist Egypt is trying to convince Iran to drop its unquestioned support of Syria's embattled President Bashar Assad in order to end that country's bloody civil war in exchange for help in easing Tehran's regional isolation at a time of mounting pressure on it over its disputed nuclear program.
The offer is the centerpiece of a diplomatic push by Egypt's new Islamist president, who is hoping his "Islamic Quartet" – grouping Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, all supporters of the Syrian rebellion, with Syria's top regional ally Iran – can succeed where other initiatives have failed.
The grouping is the first major effort to involve Iran in resolving the crisis. But it may be a tough sell. Tehran's influence in the Middle East is strongly tied to its alliance with Assad and his fall would be a major blow. Moreover, the quartet members themselves have their own divisions. Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia, along with other Gulf Arab nations, has been staunchly opposed to any Iranian expansion and may resist ending Tehran's isolation.
Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi made the offer when he met last month with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran, officials close to the Egyptian presidency said. Morsi's visit to Iran, to attend a summit of the 120-nation Nonaligned Movement, was the first by an Egyptian president since the 1979 Islamic Revolution there, when diplomatic ties between the countries were cut.
Morsi offered a package of incentives for Tehran to end its support of Assad, the officials said.
Cairo would agree to restore full diplomatic ties, a significant diplomatic prize for Iran given that Egypt is the most populous Arab nation and a regional powerhouse. Morsi would also mediate to improve relations between Iran and conservative Gulf Arab nations that have long viewed Shiite Iran with suspicion and whose fears of the Persian nation have deepened because of Iran's disputed nuclear program.
Also, Morsi offered a "safe exit" for Assad, his family and members of his inner circle.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the terms of the offer. They did not give a timeframe for the offer or say what Ahmadinejad's response was.
Morsi's argument is that neither Assad nor the rebels fighting his regime appear to be capable of winning the civil war, creating a stalemate that could eventually break up the Arab nation with serious repercussions for the entire region, the officials said.
"Egypt is convinced that what is ahead in Syria under Assad will be much worse than anything the world has seen there so far," said one of the officials. "In view of this, Egypt believes that preventing more bloodshed will be a huge achievement."
Morsi, who took office less than three months ago as Egypt's first elected and civilian president, voiced his support for the rebels against Assad's "oppressive" regime in a speech at the summit in Tehran. The move angered the Iranians, but won accolades across much of the Arab world and in Washington. It also drove the point home to the Iranians that continuing to support Assad was untenable.
The Syrian conflict has defied diplomatic solutions. Cease-fires called for by the U.N. and Arab League have been still-born as Assad's regime pushed ahead with its military campaign to stamp out the rebels, who drove ahead with their effort to bring him down.
The Syrian conflict started in March last year with a wave of mostly peaceful protests calling on Assad to step down. The uprising has morphed into a ruinous civil war. Activists say at least 23,000 people have been killed so far and the U.N. refugee agency says more than a quarter of a million people have fled the country. The conflict also has a dangerous sectarian tone: Syria's Sunni majority make up the backbone of the rebellion, while the regime is dominated by minority Alawites, the Shiite offshoot to which Assad belongs.
Diplomats from the Quartet met in Cairo for the first time Monday, and Egypt said foreign ministers from the four nations would meet in the coming days.
One prominent Syrian anti-regime activist said Iran's participation in the group suggests it realizes that supporting Assad may not be workable in the long run.
"There is a consensus among the four that the Syrian conflict must end before the country disintegrates. If this happens, the fallout will touch everyone in the region," said Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the British-based Observatory for Human Rights in Syria, an activist group that monitors violence and abuses in Syria.
"If left to its own devices, the war will continue for four or five more years," he said.
But abandoning Assad would be difficult. Iran provides Syria with substantial financial aid and weapons, both key for Assad to continue in his crackdown on rebels.
Syria is Iran's gateway to Lebanon, where the Shiite Hezbollah group is a longtime ally. Syria has been a firm friend of Iran for decades – the only Arab nation to side with it against Saddam Hussein's Iraq during their ruinous war in the 1980s.
Still, Iran needs allies now more than at any time in recent years as its fears grow of a possible strike against its nuclear facilities by Israel or the United States while a host of U.N. sanctions begin to hurt its vital oil industry. The U.S. and its allies believe Iran's nuclear program is aimed at producing weapons, a claim Tehran denies.
Ties with Egypt could bring other benefits. Iranian Oil Minister Rostam Ghasemi said Monday that talks were taking place with Egypt for Iran to sell it oil. There was no official confirmation from Egypt that such talks were taking place, but Cairo has in recent months suffered from acute fuel shortages, blamed in part on its dwindling foreign currency reserves and lower credit ratings.
The new head of Egypt's diplomatic mission in Tehran, Khaled Emarah, may have been referring to those talks when he told a seminar in Cairo on Tuesday that Iran enjoyed a "surplus" in the oil sector and that it cooperated with many foreign nations in that field. In Washington, the U.S. State Department said it was aware of the media reports on the talks, but "will not speculate on hypothetical scenarios."
It said the U.S. will continue to implement sanctions "and increase pressure on the regime" while helping other countries to find energy alternatives, the State Department said.
But while Morsi can deliver on restoring Cairo's diplomatic relations with Iran, he may have a difficult time persuading Gulf leaders to improve their relations.
Iran has for decades occupied three Gulf islands that the United Arab Emirates claims as its own. Bahrain accuses Iran of inciting its Shiite majority against the ruling Sunni family. Saudi Arabia also sees an Iranian hand in the intermittent unrest in its mostly Shiite, oil-rich eastern region. Gulf states have been alarmed by Iran's growing influence in Shiite-majority Iraq.
"This will be a difficult goal for Morsi to achieve success," said Jamie Chandler, a political science professor at Hunter College in New York City. "The countries involved (in the quartet) have historically strained relations. But, if the conversation focuses on exile (for Assad), then Iran will be the most likely sanctuary."
Associated Press reporter Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed to this report.
Also on HuffPost:
Despite major defections and a July 18. explosion in Damascus that killed four top generals, including President Bashar Assad's brother-in-law, the regime's inner circle is still powerful and united against the opposition. Assad's inner circle includes his younger brother, Maher, who commands the forces in charge of protecting the capital. It also includes the heads of the four intelligence agencies playing a major role in the crackdown. Although regime forces lost parts of the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's largest, government troops still control most cities, while the opposition dominates large parts of the countryside. <em>Caption: This June 13, 2000, file photo shows Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, his brother Maher, center, and brother-in-law Major General Assef Shawkat, left. (AP Photo, File)</em>
Free Syrian Army
The main rebel fighting force for more than a year, the Free Syrian Army includes lightly-armed volunteer militiamen and defectors from Assad's military. Its overall strength and structure is unclear, but tens of thousands are believed be loyal to the group. The rebels have control over some northern areas, allowing movement of fighters and supplies from Turkey and Lebanon. Anti-Assad forces have failed to maintain any strategic footholds in big cities, being driven back from key neighborhoods in Homs earlier this year and now apparently losing ground in the largest urban center, Aleppo. The battles also suggest only weak direction from central commanders - including Turkey-based Free Syrian Army leader Riad al-Asaad. <em>Caption: In this citizen journalism image provided by Shaam News Network SNN, taken on Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012, Free Syrian Army soldiers pose for a photograph, in Sarmada, Idlib province, northern Syria. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, SNN)</em>
Syrian National Council
Based in Istanbul, the SNC has emerged as the main political opposition to Assad and has pushed for international recognition as the legitimate representative of the uprising, despite rifts with other Syrian factions. The group also has been hit by internal feuds that have led some senior members to quit. The current leader, Abdelbaset Sieda, is a Swedish-based activist for Syria's minority Kurdish community. The SNC has gained support from many countries in the West and Arab world, but it has not galvanized international backing, and critics complain its senior leadership is made up mostly of exiles out of touch with their homeland. <em>Caption: The members of the Syrian National Council and its head Abdulbaset Sieda, center, arrive for a meeting with Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Ankara, Turkey, Monday, July 23, 2012.(AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)</em>
The National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change
A rival to the SNC, the National Coordination Committee is led by opposition figures inside Syria, many of them former political prisoners. SNC members accuse the group of being far too lenient and willing to engage in dialogue with the regime. In turn, the National Coordination Committee accuses the SNC of being a front for Western powers and willing to open the door to the Muslim Brotherhood and other conservative Islamist factions. <em>Caption: Member of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, Morhaf Mickael speaks during a meeting of Syrian opposition parties in Brussels on Sunday, June 24, 2012. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)</em>
On Assad's side are traditional Shiite allies Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah. <em>Caption: In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Saeed Jalili, meets with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus, Syria, Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2012. (AP Photo/SANA)</em>
The regime also has important political cover from Russia and China, which have used their Security Council vetoes to prevent U.N. sanctions on Syria. <em>Caption: In this Jan. 25, 2005 file photo, Syrian President Bashar Assad, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands during a signing ceremony in the Kremlin, Moscow. (AP Photo/Sergei Chirikov)</em>
The rebels have built an array of regional support that includes the wealthy Gulf states - led by Iran rival Saudi Arabia - and neighboring Turkey, which offers key supply routes. The West also backs the rebel forces, but has so far opposed mobilizing international military support similar to the NATO-led airstrikes that helped topple Moammar Gadhafi's regime in Libya. <em>Caption: From left, Bahrain's Foreign Minister, Sheik Khalid bin AhmedI bin Mohammed al-Khalifa, Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, his Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu and United Arab Emirates' Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahayan seenduring a group photo during the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Foreign ministers meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, Saturday, Jan. 28, 2012 (AP Photo)</em>
Syria has drawn foreign fighters just as other recent conflicts such as Iraq and Afghanistan. No credible count on them exists, but anecdotal evidence suggests foreigners are coming to fight Assad. Rebel commanders downplay the presence of foreign fighters, saying their cause is a purely Syrian uprising. Mohammed Idilbi, a Syrian activist based in Turkey, says foreign ranks include Libyans, Yemenis, Tunisians and Lebanese. On Saturday, Syria's official SANA news agency claimed four Libyans were among rebels killed in Aleppo. <em>Caption: In this Sept. 18, 2011 file photo, former rebel fighters celebrate as smoke rises from Bani Walid, Libya, at the northern gate of the town. (AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini, File)</em>
U.S. officials and others worry that Syria could become a new foothold for insurgents inspired by al-Qaida. Assessing the degree of radical Islamic ideology in the civil war is impossible, but at least one group, the al-Nusra Front, has emerged and declared allegiance to the Free Syrian Army. Al-Nusra, or Victory, has claimed responsibility for several high profile attacks, including a double suicide bombing in March that killed 27 people in Damascus and the execution-style killing of a Syrian television presenter who was abducted in July. On Friday, U.S. intelligence officials said al-Qaida has advanced beyond isolated pockets in Syria and now is building a network of well-organized cells that could include several hundred militants. <em>Caption: This photo shows Al-Qaida's new leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in a still image from a web posting by al-Qaida's media arm, as-Sahab, Wednesday July 27, 2011. Al-Qaida's new leader has lauded protesters in Syria for seeking to topple the regime of President Bashar Assad. (AP Photo/IntelCenter) </em>