Al Jazeera

Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood

Last February, Saudi Arabia sent a positive signal to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. In an interview with an Arabic newspaper, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Saud Al-Faisal, said his country has no problem with the Muslim Brotherhood in general, and the problems are only with a small range of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Perhaps it was not expected that a senior official of Saudi Arabia would deliver this statement about a population that represents Sunni Islam, and had announced its opposition to the Saudi monarchy before. However, looking at the Saudi’s relations with the Muslim Brotherhood indicates that their relations have ups and downs due to the presence of regional competitors: from the refuge of Muslim Brotherhood leaders to Riyadh during their suppression in Egypt by Nasser in the 50s and 60s, the Muslim Brotherhood’s success in acquiring high positions in the education system in Saudi Arabia and the Muslim Brotherhood’s support of Saddam Hussein during the first Persian Gulf War for which they were criticized by the Saudis.

Fouad Ajami, the famous Middle East analyst, published a paper in 2012 arguing that the Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi Arabia will ultimately forget their differences and will form a united front against Iran. There is some evidence that confirms his prediction.

The Muslim Brotherhood website released news which reflects the recent claims by Jamal Hishmat, who is a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and a leading member of the Brotherhood’s political wing, the Freedom and Justice party. During the ninth meeting organized by Al Jazeera as “conflict and change in the Arab world” he criticized Iranian policies in the region and called them “expansionist.” He stated “Many have been confused about the Brotherhood’s position toward Iran, and even have humiliated us. Now we should say loud and clear: Muslim Brotherhood strongly opposes Iran’s expansionist project in the region. This is a definite answer to the question about Iranian policy in the region.”

Previously, Amr Darrag, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and a member of its exiled political committee and former minister of the Morsi government, expressed his wish for successful Saudi military operations and stated that he will support any measure that would restore democracy and ensure the security of the Gulf Cooperation Council. These statements are in direct conflict with the regional interests of Iran.

An ideological link was forged at a time when the Islamists in Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt were both in opposition to and wished to overthrow secular governments. They jointly opposed the United States/Israeli policies and in the 1960s, the Muslim Brotherhood supported the Iranian ideal of forming a single Islamist nation.

Now the question is whether, in light of the changes in the region and the collapse of the balance of forces, the Muslim Brotherhood is still aligned with Iran.

Today, the reality is that the Muslim Brotherhood not only opposes Iran in geopolitical terms, but there are serious ideological differences between the two. Although some analysts argue that the Muslim Brotherhood is the representative of moderate Islam and is free from sectarian views, a look at the statute established by Hassan Al-Banna clarifies this. Al-Banna described the basic principles of the Muslim Brotherhood as: “it is a salafist movement, a fundamentalist manner, a mystical fact, a political organization, an athletic group, a cultural and scientific association, an economic corporation, and a social thought.”

The necessity to support Sunnis is stronger in the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood due to their opposition to the Assad government. The remarkable thing is that Iran supports the Muslim Brotherhood as an Islamic movement, while the secular opposition parties in Egypt’s foreign policy, especially in regional issues, is much closer to Iran. For example, Hamdeen Sabahi, a leader of the Nasserist in Egypt expressed in an interview in 2012 his desire for close relations among Egypt, Iran, Turkey and Russia. In the same year, he stated that this is essential to prevent interference of Israel and the United states in the internal affairs of the states in the region.

This also applies to Iran’s policy toward Turkey. When the Justice and Development Party came to power in that country in 2002, the Islamic Republic of Iran supported the empowerment of an Islamic party in Turkey, with the hope that it would lead to the further expansion of ties and integration. However, later, especially after the Arab Spring and the different positions taken by Iran and Turkey on the Syrian crisis, relations have deteriorated and are conflicting. An example are recent statements by President of Turkey, Erdogan, against Iran and Iran’s role in the crisis in Yemen.

The opposition party to the Republican People’s Party’s foreign policy views are similar to Iran’s policy in the Middle East and is supported by Kemalists as well as many of the Turkish Alevi population, who believe that the Justice and Development Party has caused Turkey’s relations with Iran and Iraq to become destabilized, and has further caused the country to lose its intermediary role between Iran and the West, especially in the context of the nuclear talks. In a bulletin the Republican People’s Party wrote “The Republican People’s Party believes that Iran has the right to use peaceful nuclear program, and considers Iran a respected member of the international community, and believes in  the necessary of relationship based on trust with all countries in the region.”

This position represents the more realistic, peaceful, and pluralistic approach of the People’s Republican Party in regional affairs compared to the sectarian approach of the Justice and Development Party. The basic question is whether Iran’s close relations to a party that is more consistent with its foreign policy (albeit secular) does not promote national interests more than efforts for convergence to Sunni Islamist trends which are similar to the Saudis.

The recent positions of the Turkish authorities and the Muslim Brotherhood officials indicates their support for Saudi Arabia’s hegemony in the region. This suggests that Iran must reconsider its regional orientation, choice of allies, both governmental and non- governmental actors and develop an approach to policy that is realistic rather than ideological.