Illustration by Bloomberg View
Illustration by Bloomberg View

Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi chose for his first big foreign policy move to visit Iran and propose a regional quartet to end the conflict in Syria that would include Iran but not the U.S.

He could hardly have made a clearer public declaration of independence from U.S. foreign policy. But the State Department should relax. It should even -- quietly -- help Mursi out.

By involving all the important regional players, Mursi’s plan addresses the core threat that the 17-month-old Syria conflict poses to U.S. interests: a widening confrontation between Shiites and Sunnis across the Middle East.

The Egyptian leader’s statement of intent has triggered renewed hand-wringing in parts of Washington over the loss of U.S. influence in the region, as President Barack Obama pulls forces out of Afghanistan after their departure from Iraq, holds off on the airstrike on Iran’s nuclear facilities that Israel wants, and balks at military intervention in Syria. It doesn’t help those concerns that Mursi hails from the Muslim Brotherhood.

The hand-wringers should relax, too. The U.S. still has a great deal of influence in the Middle East. Supporting Egypt as it takes a lead of its own is smart diplomacy and can advance interests that the U.S. happens to share, while strengthening shaky ties with the new government in Cairo.

Mursi’s decision to become the first Egyptian president to visit Iran since the 1979 revolution looked like a propaganda coup for the regime in Tehran, but the speech he made Thursday to a summit of the nonaligned movement was nothing his hosts wanted to hear. He said Syria’s leaders, who are closely allied to Iran, had lost their legitimacy and that outsiders had a moral duty to intervene to help the Syrian people against an “oppressive” regime. The Syrian delegation walked out.

Mursi’s proposal would bring Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to the table to secure a negotiated end to Syrian bloodletting, with the clear proviso that President Bashar Al-Assad must go. The initiative is designed to recapture for Egypt the role of the Arab world’s key mover that it had in the 1950s and 1960s, under President Gamal Abdel Nasser, but long since ceded to Saudi Arabia and even tiny Qatar.

The quartet idea is far from guaranteed to get traction. Both Assad and Syria’s fragmented opposition clearly intend to fight to the finish. There’s growing evidence that Iran’s security forces are involved in Syria, while Saudi Arabia and Qatar are funding arms for the Free Syrian Army. Turkey, for its part, pressed Thursday at the United Nations to create safe zones for refugees inside Syria, a move that would require military intervention. None of that augurs well for a deal.

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, would take some persuading even to sit down with its archrival, Shiite Iran, and the U.S. killed off a previous bid to involve Iran by the UN’s former Syria envoy Kofi Annan. Iran already responded informally to Mursi by floating a ludicrous spoiler plan that wouldn’t include the Sunni Saudis and Turks, but would involve Venezuela and Shiite-run Lebanon and Iraq.

Yet the same sectarian factors demonstrate why Mursi’s effort to bring the region’s crucial Sunni and Shiite players together makes sense and should stay on the table as events unfold, especially with a view to the conflict’s aftermath. A win by one side or the other in Syria is unlikely to end the fighting or the risk of regional spillover, and all the surrounding nations share an interest in preventing that. So do China, Israel, Russia and the U.S.

Mursi’s plan also has the advantage of circumventing the UN Security Council, which has been paralyzed since the start of the conflict by differences between France, the U.K. and the U.S. on one side, and China and Russia on the other.

There is a precedent for such regional mediation. Qatar was once the go-between for Saudi Arabia on one side and Iran and its proxies on the other. It brokered a peace deal between Lebanon’s factions in 2007, when both Iran and Saudi Arabia were critical players in the background. Qatar can’t mediate the Syria conflict, having helped to arm the Sunni opposition. Egypt has called on Assad to go, but hasn’t become so deeply involved. It also has no major problems of Sunni-Shiite sectarianism (Muslim-Christian tensions are another matter).

Mursi’s plan may not succeed, but the U.S., which could reap benefits from it, shouldn’t shoot it down. Given that nothing else is working in Syria, it’s hard to see how an Egyptian attempt at regional mediation could do harm.

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