The veteran Egyptian statesman, Mohamed Hasnin Haikal, at 90, is still available for forays into breaking new diplomatic ground. His track record is as formidable as it is long.
Gemal Abdel Nasser, president from 1956 to 1970, made prolific use of Haikal as his senior strategist for promoting relations with Moscow, thereby opening the door for the Soviet Union to establish a major foothold in the Middle East at the peak of the Cold War.
Later, his articles as editor of the Al Ahram Cairo Daily were studied across the Middle East for pointers to Nasser’s policies.
Forty-four years later, the nonagenarian was again approached for a highly discreet mission – this time, say DEBKA Weekly's intelligence sources, by Egyptian Defense Minister and strongman Gen. Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.
Last week, this seasoned pro accordingly held two secret meetings in Beirut with Hizballah Secretary General, Hassan Nasrallah, our sources reveal, They talked for 10 hours in all about possible military and political cooperation between Egypt and Iran.
Haikal was back in Cairo this week with a full report for the Egyptian strongman.
El-Sisi appreciates Nasrallah’s enhanced standing
The Egyptian strongman floated his trial balloon – and used this particular agent for his purpose – out of certain considerations:
1. Haikal is an icon for the Nasserist circles in which El-Sisi already enjoys some popularity. Employing him, he hopes will help boost his image as a latter-day Nasser.
2 As for the overture toward Tehran, the Egyptian strongman has of late come to appreciate Hizballah’s critical contribution to Assad’s war effort and Nasrallah’s enhanced regional reputation. This makes the Hizballah leader a good conduit for a possible détente between Cairo and Tehran. To start the ball rolling, he cast about for an emissary of high rank with diplomatic savvy. Who better qualified than the point man who opened the Middle East to Soviet influence?
3. His approach to Hizballah also tied in with the opening of Morsi’s Cairo trial on Jan. 16. The charges against him include spying for Hizballah and Hamas and facilitating the breakout from jail of thousands of inmates at the peak of the Tahrir Square revolution against President Mubarak in 2011.
This trial and El-Sisi's determination to crush Hamas rule in the Gaza Strip (See the previous item in this issue) led him to put a toe in the water for testing whether Iran and Hizballah would stand for a major Egyptian operation to cut the Hamas down.
Will Iran and Hizballah stand for Hamas purge?
A senior Egyptian security official who spoke on condition of anonymity said Wednesday, Jan. 22,
“Gaza is next. We will never be rid of Brotherhood terrorism in Egypt without finishing it off in Gaza where it sits on our borders.”
Another security official, asked why Egyptian security forces are not going after Hamas now, replied: "Their time will come.”
It is therefore possible to conjecture a deal taking shape in some shadowy diplomatic back channel for Iran and Hizballah to turn a blind eye to an Egyptian purge of Hamas in return for the onset of a process of reconciliation between Cairo and Tehran.
4. El-Sisi's purge of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood and the implied openness of Egypt, the most populous Sunni power, to rapprochement with Iran, represent a major reverse for the Sunni cause in its emerging struggle with Shiite powers for Middle East domination.
5. All his actions depict Egypt’s strongman as an unalloyed pragmatist. When he saw the Russia-Iran-Syria-Hezbollah bloc flourishing and the United States in retreat, he took a hard look at the advantages of switching Cairo’s orientation around to the up-and-coming force
6. Does Saudi Arabia approve of his overture to the Shiite powers? Or was Riyadh even informed? These questions are vital considering that Riyadh shoulders most of the weight of the Egyptian economy and forks out billions of dollars to keep the country solvent in the post-Muslim Brotherhood period.
7. Hasnin Haikal suddenly thrust his oar into one of the most delicate issues preying on the Persian Gulf and deeply affecting Saudi Arabia: the fate of three disputed Persian Gulf islands, Abu Musa and Greater and Lesser Tunbs.
Iran is reported to have advanced its drive for influence in the Sunni-ruled Arab Gulf by striking a secret deal over their ownership with the United Arab Emirates, which claims the islands.
Some Gulf sources say the deal was negotiated behind Saudi Arabia’s back.
El-Sisi buys Haikal’s credo: Accept the balance of power
The negotiators have so far agreed to let the Greater and Lesser Tunbs revert to UAE possession, while leaving the future of Abu Musa open to discussion. In essence, Iran would hold the seabed rights around the three islands, while the UAE retains sovereignty.
As go-between for this deal, Oman will also grant Iran a presence on the highly strategic Ras Musandam Mountain which commands the entire Gulf region.
DEBKA Weekly's military sources note that Iran can use this concession to build an early warning station on the Ras Musandam peak for blanket surveillance of all parts of the Gulf region, including the entire Arabian Peninsula.
This week, Iran denied the existence of any agreement on the three islands and the Omani mountain.
This is where the veteran Egyptian diplomat stepped into the debate.
“I was present at the negotiations during the time of Gemal Abdel Nasser in Egypt and Feisal in Saudi Arabia when the Arab states traded the three islands for Bahrain, " Haikal confided in an interview to the CBS network, that was picked up by the Iranian daily Jomhouri-e-Eslami.
“They legitimized the rule of the Sunni minority over a big Shia majority in Bahrain by recognizing it as an Arab state," he said.
Turning to the present, Haikal’s advice was simple: “Instead of insisting on the notion that the islands belong to the UAE, one should accept the balance of power in the region."
This brand of no-nonsense realism is just the ticket for the Egyptian strongman. Hasnin Haikal was therefore entrusted with the secret probe of Shiite ground with the Hizballah leader.