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Raghida Dergham Headshot

A New American-Israeli-Russian-Iranian Intersection

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It is no passing matter for Russia's Defense Minister and Foreign Minister to embark on a visit to Egypt that has been described as "historical", in order to discuss opening a new chapter in the bilateral relations between the two countries, accompanied by news of an arms deal that is noteworthy in the trilateral relations among Russia, Egypt and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Reports indicate there is security collaboration between Cairo and Moscow. President Barack Obama's administration seems to pay no heed to such a transformation, because it is certain that it will not turn into a strategic one, and perhaps also because it does not care even if Russia were return to the kind of relations it had with Egypt before President Anwar Sadat replaced the country's alliance with Russia with an alliance with the United States, 41 years ago. But a more important question is this: does Egypt today have a comprehensive vision for its strategic relations with either or both the United States and Russia? And is coordination part of Saudi Arabia and Egypt's vision of the role they play and the weight they carry together in the regional balance of power? They are both furious - for different reasons - with the Obama administration and its contempt for these two countries, which are essential for the weight of the Arabs in the regional balance of power, especially after both Iraq and Syria have been eliminated from the strategic equation with Israel and been placed under the banner of Iran. But will turning to Russia accomplish a serious qualitative shift in Egypt's relationship with the United States or does it merely represent a temporary expression of discontent? And because Iran, Turkey, and Israel represent essential countries in the strategic balance of power, the relationship of the United States and of Russia with each of the three must be taken into consideration by Egypt and Saudi Arabia when forging a new partnership with Moscow or abandoning their old partnership with Washington. Indeed, the issue of Syria intersects with the two poles represented by the United States and Russia in Saudi Arabia's considerations, as does the central role played by Iran in relations with them. For Cairo, the issue of the Muslim Brotherhood takes top priority in Egypt's relations with each of the two poles. The Palestinian issue is of course important for both Saudi Arabia and Egypt, but the stances taken by the Americans and by the Russians with regard to Israel are nearly identical today, unlike what they had been during the Cold War. Turkey's position is an obscure one in the balance of power, as it wavers between a past that had brought it close to Israel and a present that has inspired it to lead the Muslim Brotherhood. It is today in disagreement with Egypt and wavering in its relations with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as well as with the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Faced with these factors, as well as with Russia's entrance into the Middle East as a whole by every means possible, as opposed to America's retreat everywhere, it is imperative for a long-term Saudi-Egyptian vision to emerge of their relations with the two poles, the United States and Russia, so as for temporary measures not to represent the de facto replacement for a necessary strategy. It is also imperative for the Arab popular base to participate in such a vision, because it is no longer willing to automatically embrace either the Russian bear or the United States' Democratic donkey and Republican elephant.

Egypt's Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmi, in an interview he gave Al-Hayat in New York on September 24, described his country's relationship with the United States as troubled, seeing as "there had been some ambiguity about the true role played by the United States and the stance [it] took on former President Hosni Mubarak at the beginning, i.e. in the first revolution, and then on the Muslim Brotherhood in the second revolution. There is no doubt that the general trend in Egyptian public opinion about the United States is leaning towards the negative at much higher degrees than it has at any other time in the past." He also added that "ordinary Egyptian citizens are calling for replacing the country's reliance on the United States with assistance from other countries, the simplest example of this being Russia. Yet such a call is really about having a greater variety of options, not replacing one option with another. The notion of replacing one country with another in this day and age is illogical, ineffective and unwelcome." He said that his visit to Moscow at the beginning of his term as Foreign Minister represented "an important message, but not a message of historical transformation. The significance of this important message is that we want to restore relations or raise the level of relations between Egypt and Russia, without the least bit of doubt or shame. Yet the issue is not one of turning East at the expense of the West, or turning South at the expense of the North."

Fahmi asserted in his interview that "there will be relations in the military field, for example, with the United States, as well as with a number of Western European countries, and also with Russia." The main event now is the first visit by Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu to Cairo this week to hold the first meeting of its kind in the history of relations between the two countries, within the framework of what has become known as the "2+2" of Foreign and Defense Ministers, being also the first Russian visit at this level since President Mohamed Morsi and the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood were toppled.

The issue where Russia, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia meet is the Muslim Brotherhood, as all three are determined to prevent it from rising to power again. The point where they part is that of Iran and Syria, especially for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, bearing in mind that the Brotherhood's Egypt had taken a stance in opposition to the regime in Damascus and to Russia's interference in Syria. Egypt today, on the other hand, is not as clear and sharp in its stances on developments in Syria. In fact, the measures that have been taken by the Egyptian government against Syrian civilian refugees or migrants have very often been harsh. Indeed, on the issue of Syria, stances differ between Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, making the security collaboration between the three both striking and perplexing.

Even more curious is the issue of where Iran lies in this trilateral venture, knowing that Russia is perfectly clear about its strategic alliance with the Islamic Republic of Iran, in their bias in favor of the regime in Damascus as well as in their wider relations and the positioning of each of them at the regional and international levels. Indeed, the axis that brings together Moscow, Tehran, and Damascus, and also includes Hezbollah, represents a serious and firm coalition, particularly at this juncture. And no multibillion-dollar deals will tempt Moscow if it must in return abandon this axis, especially in the aspect of it that regards Tehran.

Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah spoke this week, mocking Arab-Western alliances and how quickly the United States abandons its allies, in what has become known as a reputation for betrayal. He boasted of his own alliances, in particular with Iran, as well as with Syria, where his forces have been tipping the military balance of power on the ground in favor of the regime in Damascus, in collaboration and coordination with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (Pasdaran) present on the Syrian battlefield.

He said, "When major settlements are reached in the world, the friends and allies of this or that side become worried, but we do not worry about our allies. We have had and continue to have two main allies, Iran and Syria. Tell me, has there ever been a time when our allies have sold us out and turned us in, or stabbed us in the back?" He continued to boast, addressing those who had wagered on their alliance with either the United States or the Arab Gulf states in the battle in Syria, "We are confident of our relationship with our allies, but do you want us to count the number of times your allies have abandoned you and left you stranded in the middle of the road?"

Even more striking was Nasrallah's defense of the understanding between Iran and Western countries headed by the United States, warning that "the alternative to an understanding between Iran and the countries of the world (...) is war in the region." His warning of the alternative of war echoes a similar warning from the Obama administration to Congress that not reaching an agreement with Tehran on the nuclear issue and not enticing it with a gradual lifting of the crippling sanctions would mean war. In Tehran too has risen the echo of warnings against war as the de facto alternative to not yielding to Iran's demands to reach an understanding on the nuclear issue with the West. Indeed, scaremongering has become the easiest means to convince Western leaders that they should appease Iran in negotiations over the nuclear issue and in terms of granting it regional leadership. That is because American and European public opinion is obsessed with what it holds as a top priority, namely that: we do not want to go to war. The leadership in the United States, as in Britain, is rushing to yield to Iran's leaders because it fears being forced to go to war. This is why Tehran is mobilized to take advantage of this Western "weakness" without having to offer anything in return. Indeed, what the West gets in return has in effect become ceasing to threaten with the specter of "war." And Washington, London, and Berlin seem willing to suffice themselves with this.

What is surprising is that Washington and London are perfectly well aware of the extent to which the sanctions imposed on Iran are undermining its economic power to the point of exhaustion. They are also perfectly well aware that the motive behind the campaign of "moderation" coming out of Tehran is its dire need for those sanctions to be lifted. Yet they are using this reality as ammunition against themselves. Instead of utilizing this dire need of Tehran's to obtain true moderation on the nuclear issue and on the issue of Syria, the Obama administration and Cameron's government are trembling in fear before the regime in Tehran and in effect joining the stances taken by the government of Angela Merkel, the strong-willed German Chancellor who considers Iran to have the right to enrich uranium. Indeed, Germany has traditionally stood with Tehran, and views Iran as never having been a "hostile" state, just as the West always views Israel as the victim rather than a state with a record of "hostility." France thus seems to stand alone within the framework of the nuclear talks with Iran, which bring together the three European countries with Russia, China, and the United States. Paris alone recommends not slipping into the embrace of Iran's uncommitted smile and not merely falling in love with the moderate Iran whose moderation has yet to be proven.

Britain is not merely rushing to resume diplomatic relations with Tehran. In fact, according to a reliable source, the British government is trying to find itself a mediator to reach Damascus as well, specifically in order to repair its relationship with President Bashar al-Assad. Indeed, Britain, which had been in the lead to thwart the military strike against the regime in Damascus as punishment for its use of chemical weapons, is today clearing the path for rehabilitating the regime in Damascus in order to meet Iran's demands.

There is then a striking intersection between, on the one hand, the stances taken by the United States, Britain, and Germany, and on the other those taken by Russia and China towards Iran, both in terms of the nuclear and of the Syrian aspects. Negotiations over the nuclear issue may grow more complicated if Tehran were to go too far in terms of self-confidence and of its wager on the West's weakness and on its need for "no war." Indeed, its insistence on enriching uranium at 20 percent could place the Nuclear Weapons Non-Proliferation Treaty in danger of collapsing. And that is something none of the five major nuclear powers wants. Nevertheless, there is today a quasi-understanding at the international level about the necessity of reaching an understanding with Tehran rather than confronting it. There is also implicit near-approval to grant international legitimacy to a regional role for Iran, most prominently in Iraq but perhaps in Syria as well.

Such developments are the result of several factors, among them the fact that the Islamic Republic of Iran has adopted a strategy that is patient, carefully designed, and comprehensive, based on perseverance, long-term vision, and self-control that steers clear of emotional behavior. If the Arab countries are then to have a chance to restore an Arab stance to the regional balance of power, "patching things up" will not be of any use to them, nor will imagining that drawing closer to Russia, for example, out of anger at the United States, represents the ideal course of action for Arab interests, while Russia in effect represents Iran's primary ally - the Islamic Republic being one of the most important poles in the regional balance of power. Indeed, correcting the distortion caused by the alliance between the United States and Israel in the balance of power at the expense of the Arabs will not come through the alliance between Russia and Iran. In fact, there is a new intersection today between the United States, Israel, Russia, and Iran, one that Arab parties should really take into consideration if they are really thinking of restoring an Arab position in the regional balance of power.

Egypt is qualified to regain its regional weight, yet it will not be able to achieve this without visionary and effective collaboration on the part of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other Arab countries. Egypt is eligible to do this on the condition that it does not fall into emotional policies and policies of arbitrary diversification, meant to express resentment or anger. Egypt is eligible to do this if it lays out, together with its main partners, a visionary long-term strategy, and immediately starts to make Egyptian public opinion and the Arab popular base partners in the new decision-making process in the Arab region.

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