Iran-Brotherhood ties: rooted in history with eye on future

Many argue that Iran's regional clout is in decline in the wake of the popular revolts in the Arab world. But it would be a mistake to underestimate the connections between Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood that has gained power in several countries.

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A salient feature of Iran's foreign policy is its ability to build influence where least expected. With the ascent to power of Sunni Islamists throughout the region, and Iran's support of the military campaign in Syria, many have argued that Iran's regional standing is in decline.

But the opposite assessment needs to be taken seriously. Iran has been upbeat about the popular revolts, dubbing them an "Islamic Awakening" and confident it can build strong ties with the people of the region after the demise of dictatorial rule in the Arab republics.

That prospect is particularly true with the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots throughout the region - including even those that currently perceive Iran as an enemy, such as the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.

A closer look at the historical links and ideological similarities between Tehran's mullahs and Arab Islamists shows that not only could Iran build ties with the emerging political forces in the region, but that it could develop a sustainable special relationship.

One of the first encounters between the Muslim Brotherhood and Iranian figures who later helped to bring about Iran's current regime was in Cairo, in 1954. Sayyid Navvab Safavi, an Iranian leader of the anti-Shah Fadayan-e Islam, met with senior Brotherhood members to bolster ties. Salim Al Bahnsawi, a Brotherhood intellectual who died in 2006, said of the meeting: "It's not surprising that the similarities in approach between the two groups led to this cooperation". And Rashid Ghannouchi, leader of the Ennahda Movement in Tunisia, has even described Fadayan-e Islam as an offshoot of the Brotherhood.

Before that, the Brotherhood's founder, Hassan Al Banna, had frequently met with Iranian clerics. During one Haj visit to Mecca, he agreed with ayatollahs to establish ties with the Shia clerical establishment in Tehran. But that effort was soon disrupted by Al Banna's assassination in 1949. Senior Brotherhood figures continued to meet Iranian clerics, including Ayatollah Mohammed Taqi Al Qummi and Ayatollah Khomeini while he was in exile in Paris before the revolution.

The Brotherhood welcomed the 1979 Islamic Revolution, although members later expressed disappointment that Ayatollah Khomeini established a sectarian state, rather than an inclusive Islamic state that respected the rights of Sunni adherents in Iran. Relations with Tehran faltered during the Iraq-Iran war (1980-1988), but were not severed.

Iran's current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has repeatedly praised the organisation and translated some of Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb's books into Farsi. After the Egyptian uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak, more Brotherhood books have been translated into Farsi, including one about the history of the organisation, translated by Ayatollah Hadi Khosrowshahi, the former adviser to Iran's foreign minister.

The Brotherhood and adherents of Khomeinism share common Islamic views that make them closer to each other than to their fellow Sunnis or Shiites. The Brotherhood deems rulership a religious "asel", meaning that one's faith is not complete without pledging allegiance to an imam - unlike the consensus in mainstream Sunni Islam. This is similar to the concept of velayat-e faqih, which holds that a religious jurist has custodianship over the people.

Other similarities include the institution of the "general guide", and the ability to exercise taqiyya, a form of religious dissimulation to avoid persecution or harm. Both ideologies approve of election as a political mechanism but require the rule of Sharia and oversight by religious people of the population's choice - which can be described as a clergy-supervised democracy, or constitutional theocracy. Also, the two groups tend to be expansionist.

Indeed, there is a growing current within the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt that is pushing for stronger ties with Iran. This current is represented by Kamal Al Halbawi, a former Brotherhood spokesman, who said in July the status of Shiites in the region would be "better" with the rise of the Brotherhood and moderate Islam. Others, like Doha-based Youssef Al Qardawi, approve of stronger relations with Iran but oppose any Shia influence within Sunni communities.

It is important to distinguish between the Brotherhood as an organisation and as an ideology. The former is coherent but the latter is loose. The Brotherhood includes Sunni adherents from a wider religious spectrum, from extreme Salafis to moderate clerics, with conflicting views on sectarian issues. According to people I've spoken to, the Brotherhood leadership therefore treads carefully in terms of rapprochement with Iran to avoid alienating sectarian forces inside and outside the organisation, but at the same time quietly promotes it.

The rapprochement is of course not without risks. Salafists, now major players in Egyptian politics, are vehemently opposed to any Iranian influence or spread of Shia Islam, which many consider "enemy No 1". The Gulf states and their regional and international allies also oppose such rapprochement and consider it a direct threat to their security. Yet ties, even intelligence ties, are strengthening.

Major Genera Qassem Suleimani, a spy chief and commander of Iran's Quds Force, reportedly visited Cairo last month for talks with senior officials close to President Mohammed Morsi. Almost at the same time, Egypt's ambassador to Lebanon, Ashraf Hamdy, told Lebanese newspaper The Daily Star that Egypt would pursue a relationship with Hizbollah as a "real political and military force".

The onus is on regional countries to initiate measures to prevent the most populous Arab country from drifting towards the Iranian orbit, as happened with Iraq. Any alliance between the Iranian regime and the Brotherhood is likely to be more enduring and sustainable than Iran's alliance with Baathist Syria, for example.

For this reason, regional Arab states looking to rebuild ties with Cairo must recognise that the new Egypt is more complex and many actors are vying for its attention. A process of deeper engagement with Egypt as a country is essential.