Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy took Iran to task on Thursday for its role in the Syrian crisis. During a speech at the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran, Morsy, though never directly criticizing Iran, repeatedly condemned the “unjust” and “oppressive” Syrian regime of Bashar Assad, Iran’s closest ally.
“The crisis in Syria is hanging upon all of us. It is our responsibility. It is our responsibility,” Morsy repeated. “We have to be aware the bloodshed will not stop and will not be limited if we do not actively interfere to stop it.” Iran advocates a “Syrian-Syrian” solution free of “any external influences on the internal affairs of Syria,” as Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi told TIME on Tuesday.
Morsy was in Tehran to hand over the chairmanship of the Non-Aligned Movement to his “dear brother,” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Since Morsy took office, Iran has made several overtures to Cairo, hoping for a normalization of relations with Egypt. At one point, Ahmadinejad said he could be in Cairo in an hour if Morsy was willing to meet — an offer that went unanswered, as did an Iranian offer to take over the $1.3 billion in annual military aid Egypt receives from the U.S.
So Iran was delighted when Morsy announced that he would be attending and speaking at the conference, even though the Egyptian leader would only spend a few hours in Tehran and refused all offers for bilateral talks. “Egypt is there not because of Iran but because of the Non-Aligned Movement,” says Dennis Ross, a former top adviser to President Barack Obama on the Middle East. “Morsy’s playing it up as Egypt being independent, not owned by anybody and not owing anybody anything.”
Iran initially pushed for a resolution on Syria as part of the conference’s declaration, but backed down when it became clear such a move would provoke a fight with Sunni nations like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. “The Arab Spring hasn’t proven the godsend gift to the Republic that the Iranian officials have talked about,” says Ali Alfoneh, an Iran expert at the American Enterprise Institute. “The events in Syria have been catastrophic for Iran because they find themselves on the other side of the revolution.” The sectarian violence in Syria, with Assad’s regime accused of killing tens of thousands of Sunnis, also seems to be the biggest sticking point in Iran’s hoped-for rapprochement with Egypt, at least if Morsy’s speech on Thursday was any judge.
Morsy’s remarks represented the first drama in the otherwise staid conference. During the ministerial portion of the conference earlier in the week, 120 nations agreed on the declaration text, which includes only three bland paragraphs promoting peace in Syria. Much more attention was paid to the support given to Iran’s nuclear program and against U.S. and E.U. sanctions currently squeezing the Iranian economy.
Morsy paid lip service to this issue as well, but he returned three times to the Syrian crisis. “I am here today to announce our full and just support of a free, independent Syria,” he said. “And a process that supports a transition to a democratic system that respects the will of the Syrian people … at the same time preventing Syria from going into civil war or going into sectarian divisions.”
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, who officially welcomed more than 40 heads of state to the summit on Thursday, didn’t mention Syria, though he did express his hope that the Non-Aligned Movement spurs the transformation of a unilateral world, under the supremacy of the U.S., into a multilateral one. “Humanity is divided into first-, second- and third-class citizens,” Khamenei said. “American and European security is important while the security of the rest of humankind is considered unimportant. Torture and assassination when committed by the U.S. and Zionists or one of their henchmen is totally condonable.”