Morsi, however, is desperate to tighten his shaky grip on his nation, with his seven months in office defined by round after round of political violence, a sliding economy and increasing opposition to what his critics see as his attempt to place all powers in his own hands and those of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group from which he hails.
The Egyptian leader has made the conflict in Syria his pet foreign policy project in the hope of improving his standing at home and establishing himself as a regional player. Last year, he created a working group of four nations — Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey — to work toward ending the Syrian civil war. But Saudi Arabia, which has traditionally viewed Iran with suspicion, has pulled out after attending one meeting and the group has yet to show any tangible progress.
The Saudis’ withdrawal underlined the gulf between the mostly Sunni Gulf Arab nations and Iran on Syria as well as the depth of the Shiite-Sunni fault line in the region. With the exception of tiny but super-rich Qatar — which has poured billions of dollars into Morsi’s emptying coffers — the Gulf Arab states have furthermore made little effort to conceal their distaste for Egypt’s new Islamist leadership, in part out of fear they would export their revolution to their own nations.
Against this background, Morsi may have found that a rapport with Iran could be useful to counterbalance the Gulf nations.
But it is unclear how far he can go in this direction.
So far Washington has remained publicly silent, but it would likely be highly alarmed if Egypt, one of its closest Arab allies, did cozy up to Iran.
The United States has for decades viewed Iran as its chief Middle East foe and, like Israel, sees its nuclear program as the region’s most potent security threat. A move by Cairo toward Iran could bring a deep chill over its ties with Washington.
Also, Iran is not expected to offer much to Egypt by way of financial aid or assistance since it is hurting from the international sanctions, with its oil revenues and currency, the rial, both down by more than 40 percent as a result.
Moreover, close relations with Iran could produce a backlash at home by Morsi’s Islamist allies and a large segment of the mostly Sunni Muslim population who resent what they see as Iran’s bid to spread its influence in the Middle East.