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Sid in his law office where he sits when meeting with clients. Observant eyes will notice the statuette of one of Sid's favorite Democrats.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

My lst go figure reaction; now this: (1) White House actions pushing Saudi Arabia toward China and Russia; (2) Egyptians Court U.S. Foes Iran & Syria

A 1/27/11 post on Egypt and our long ally Mr. Mubarak was entitled "Go figure: As Arabs protest, Obama administration offers assertive support"


From the Wall Street Journal:

Iran and Egypt's new government signaled Monday they were moving quickly to thaw decades of frosty relations, worrying the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia that the overtures could upset the Mideast's fragile balance of power.

Iran said it appointed an ambassador to Egypt for the first time since the two sides froze diplomatic relations more than three decades ago, the website of the Iranian government's official English-language channel, Press TV, reported late Monday.

Also Monday, officials at Egypt's Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed that new foreign minister Nabil Elaraby is considering a visit to the Gaza Strip—an area controlled by Hamas, a militant Palestinian Islamist group backed by Tehran and until now shunned by Cairo.

The announcements follow a rare meeting earlier this month between a high-level Iranian diplomat and Mr. Elaraby, after which the foreign minister told reporters that Egypt has "opened a new page" with Iran.

American officials said they are concerned that Egypt's apparent determination to re-establish relations with Iran is part of a broader reordering of its foreign policy. They worry that such a turn could empower Iran and its regional clients Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in Lebanon, both of which are labeled terrorist groups by the U.S.

Egypt's outreach has also extended to Syria, a close ally of Iran. In early March, Egypt's new intelligence chief, Murad Muwafi, chose Syria for his first foreign trip. It remains unclear what was discussed at the meeting, previously reported by The Wall Street Journal.

For decades, Egypt was a vital player in a Middle East balance of power: With its large population, U.S.-financed military and diplomatic ties with Israel, it was a counterweight against Israel's foes, primarily Iran and Syria. But as Iran's power in the region has grown and the Middle East has become more defined by political Islam, Egypt's reliably anti-Iranian stance cost it significant diplomatic capital. With Cairo unable to engage Tehran, it lost its position as one of the region's chief diplomatic brokers, eclipsed by Qatar, Syria and Saudi Arabia.

Egyptian officials and several foreign-policy analysts say the new diplomacy isn't so much an expression of affinity with Iran as it is a broader effort to reclaim lost diplomatic prestige. Egypt's new government presents the policy shift as part of a general diplomatic reopening, rather than a reordering, of its regional relationships.

"Egypt's role cannot be underestimated. But that role over the last few decades, I think 30 years or so, has diminished," said Menha Bakhoum, spokeswoman for Egypt's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "If there's anything happening now, I think that will be regaining that position that we've had for years and years and years."

Western reactions to Egypt's entreaties to Iran were exaggerated, Ms. Bakhoum said Monday.

Later, Iran's Press TV reported Ali Akbar Sibouyeh, a career diplomat, was appointed ambassador following negotiations between Mr. Elaraby and Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akar Salehi. An Iranian official at the United Nations couldn't immediately confirm the report.

Concerns over Iran's regional influence flared anew Monday. The Gulf Cooperation Council, a grouping that includes Saudi Arabia and Qatar, asked the United Nations Security Council to stop what it calls "flagrant Iranian interference" in Bahrain and other GCC countries. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have accused Shiite Iran of aiding Bahrain's predominantly Shiite anti-government protesters.

Iran's foreign ministry spokesman said the criticism was surprising "while the military forces of some members of the council have…cracked down on defenseless men and women."

Iran's post-revolutionary Islamist government cut diplomatic ties with Egypt in 1980 when Egypt became the first Arab country to grant diplomatic recognition to Israel. In the decades after Hosni Mubarak assumed office in 1981, he treated Tehran with deep suspicion because of its support for Hamas, a Palestinian Islamist militant group with ties to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, Mr. Mubarak's most powerful political opponents.

Concerns about Iran as a destabilizing force haven't necessarily evaporated since the fall of Mr. Mubarak, who was ousted by countrywide protests in February. "I know from some Egyptians in the government that they still have security concerns about what Iran is doing in the region," said a Western diplomat.

Throughout Mr. Mubarak's rule, Egypt maintained high-level diplomacy with Iran that stopped just short of normal relations. The Egyptian ministry of foreign affairs maintained an "Interests Section" in Tehran and an ambassador who worked out of Dubai, said Ms. Bakhoum.

The change in tone toward Iran is incremental, said Ms. Bakhoum. But it could have implications for another of Mr. Elaraby's stated foreign policy priorities—resolving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

Helping to resolve that conflict was one of the Mubarak regime's most significant foreign policy goals; failing to do so contributed to Egypt's moribund diplomatic stature, analysts say.

Engaging Iran may help Egypt proceed with negotiations with Hamas, which has governed the Gaza Strip under an Israeli blockade since the group seized power from the more moderate Fatah in 2007. Any headway toward resolving the seemingly intractable Middle East conflict would be hugely popular among Egyptians, said Mohammed Abdel Salam, an expert on Iran at the government-financed Al Ahram Center for Political Strategic Studies, a Cairo think tank.

Amr Moussa, the former Secretary General of the Arab league, owes his front-runner status in Egyptian presidential elections later this year to his forceful statements against Israel when he was Egypt's foreign minister during the 1990s. Islamist groups in particular have been empowered by Egypt's abrupt shift to democracy, and analysts expect that Egypt's next government will have to answer to growing calls that it break with U.S. foreign-policy objectives.

Some Islamist political voices within Egypt have already begun their own sort of diplomacy. Magdi Hussein, the chairman of the Islamist Al Amal (Labor) Party, met with Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi earlier this week in Tehran. Both sides encouraged a quickening of the diplomatic thaw between the two countries.

Egypt appears to be following a foreign relations pattern set by Turkey in the past decade—a strong American ally whose foreign policy has nevertheless decoupled from American interests. Regardless of its final position on Iran, the country is likely to be significantly less beholden to U.S. interests, American officials said, if only because Egypt was such a reliable ally under Mr. Mubarak.

"It's hard to imagine a change that would improve on what we had" with the previous Egyptian regime, one U.S. official said.

But the officials caution that they haven't yet seen any indications of a radical shift away from the U.S. by Egypt, or moves toward a markedly closer relationship with Iran. The Egyptian military remains pro-American, U.S. officials say, and they expect Egypt's generals to provide a moderating influence.

"Opening an embassy isn't saying 'we want to be allies' or anything like that," the official said.

Another official said the U.S. expects "more noise" from Egypt, especially when it comes to Israel. The official also said the U.S. is probably going to have less influence over Egypt, and thus less influence in the region at a crucial time.

But the broad thrust of the Egypt's relationship with the U.S. and Egypt's foreign policy in general is expected to remain "more or less the same," the official said.

Also anchoring Egypt firmly in the pro-West camp is the military's close relationship with Saudi Arabia, which remains firm, the official said. But the Saudis are also looking warily at the political changes unfolding in Egypt, unsure whether they will be able to count as much upon the emerging government there as they could with Mr. Mubarak as a check against Iran's expansionist goals in the region.

Riyadh wasn't happy with the passage of an Iranian warship through the Suez Canal earlier this year. The move appears to be part of an Iranian strategy to expand its military presence around the Middle East, even as sectarian tensions rise.

Saudi Arabia's foreign ministry spokesman declined to comment on the developments, which he said were the sovereign affairs of foreign states.


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