Tamer Badawi is a policy leader fellow at the European University Institute’s School of Transnational Governance. His research focuses on Iranian foreign and trade policy toward the Arab countries and nonstate actors, and dialogue initiatives between Iranian and Arab elites. Diwan interviewed Badawi in April to discuss a recent Carnegie article that he coauthored with Osama al-Sayyad, titled “Mismatched Expectations: Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood After the Arab Uprisings.”
Michael Young: You recently coauthored an article for Carnegie titled “Mismatched Expectations: Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood After the Arab Uprisings.” What is your argument and why is it important?
Tamer Badawi: The Islamic Republic of Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood share some ideological commonalities and are both under pressure regionally from the same adversaries—notably Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Thus, they have been keen to maintain open lines of communication, which may contribute to a rapprochement between them.
However, the Iranian-Muslim Brotherhood relationship has also been historically characterized by varying levels of distrust and mismatched expectations. For the Brotherhood, Iran’s military involvement in the Syrian conflict was a significant obstacle to improved ties both before and after the 2013 military coup in Egypt against then-president Mohammed Morsi, a Brotherhood member. Despite engaging with Tehran, Morsi did not fulfill Tehran’s expectation that during his time in office he would mend ties and resume diplomatic relations with Iran, which were severed in 1979.
This topic is important because the Middle East and North Africa region today is defined politically by volatile alliances arising in response to specific situations. Despite how vulnerable and relatively unpopular the Muslim Brotherhood has become, it remains an integral part of the region’s social fabric, with an extensive network of contacts. The future development of ties between the Brotherhood and Iran, or the absence of ties, could have an impact on shaping events in which Tehran has a stake. As the region is potentially witnessing a second wave of uprisings—in Algeria and Sudan—movements of political Islam may make a comeback and contribute to new governing structures. Iran would be interested in approaching such groups and cultivating good relations with them.
MY: In what ways do the strategic objectives of Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood align or differ, and how did this influence the rapprochement between Tehran and Cairo when Mohammed Morsi was in power in Egypt?
TB: The Muslim Brotherhood governed Egypt for only one year, so the contours of its foreign policy were still being shaped when Morsi was removed from office. Thus, it is difficult to compare the Brotherhood’s objectives with those of a more established and regionally assertive Iran. The Egyptian government under Morsi included Iran in a regional contact group on Syria back in 2012. This indicated that the Brotherhood was interested in an inclusive regional framework to address the Syrian conflict that would not exclude Iran. Both parties align on supporting Palestinian resistance groups against Israel. But this support could also have widened their rivalry, because Cairo could have influenced these groups’ behavior in a way that went against Iranian preferences. In the long term, Iran and the Brotherhood would also like to see Saudi Arabia’s regional clout contained, without necessarily having to cooperate directly in order to realize that goal.
MY: After the military coup in 2013 and the subsequent crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood, how did the organization’s priorities shift? What effect did this changing situation have on its contacts with Iran?
TB: After the coup, the Muslim Brotherhood sought to increase its outreach to influential actors who could pressure the military-backed government, namely Western countries. The regional situation since then, defined by Saudi and Emirati hostility toward both the Brotherhood and Iran, might have encouraged the latter two to increase their contacts. The Brotherhood’s organizational fragmentation after the coup facilitated Iranian outreach efforts to different factions within the organization, including younger members who had been sidelined by the movement’s traditional leadership. In Istanbul, a hub for exiled Islamist activists, Iranian officials and government-linked figures have been actively engaged in outreach efforts. For Iran, paradoxically, the Brotherhood’s fragmentation allows for increased contacts but also reduces the organization’s ability to serve Iran’s long-term propaganda and mobilization goals.
However, a segment of the Muslim Brotherhood perceives Iran as a hostile force. They view Tehran’s offers of training, scholarships, and trips to Iran as pragmatic attempts to entice members, not as a sign of genuine interest in dialogue and in resolving points of contention between Iran and the Brotherhood. This is to say that for certain Brotherhood members the intensity of outreach is not effective as such to improve ties, absent more satisfying methods of engagement.
MY: What do you see as the main factors that will determine the future direction of the Iran-Muslim Brotherhood relationship?
TB: The parties’ perceptions of the recent legacy of relations and the war in Syria will impact prospects for closer ties. Moving forward, the relationship will be shaped by strategic choices. Will both sides choose to engage in dialogue to discuss and bridge their differences, or maintain a relationship that is reserved?
Currently, both Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood mainly see the other side’s willingness to engage as a result not of a genuine desire to improve ties, but as a consequence of other aims. The Muslim Brotherhood would like to maintain contacts with Tehran to enhance its own position vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates if the two countries negotiate with the Brotherhood in the future. For the Muslim Brotherhood, maintaining ties with Tehran is also useful as insurance if its main allies, Turkey and Qatar, are weakened. Finally, contacts with Iran, the largest Shi‘a state in the region, bolsters the movement’s credentials in advocating for Muslim unity.
Tehran, in turn, wants to cultivate ties with Sunni Islamists to increase its geopolitical leverage and position. For an Iran under regional and international pressure, reducing the gap with the Muslim Brotherhood could allow it to tap into the movement’s extensive network of regional contacts. This would potentially serve the Iranian goal of augmenting support for and bolstering the nonsectarian nature of its Axis of Resistance in the region.