Iran's Attempts to Renew Relations with Egypt

March 19, 2008
Introduction

In recent months, Iran has been making efforts to renew diplomatic relations with Egypt. Relations between the two countries were cut off in 1981 by the founder of Iran's Islamic regime Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in protest against Egypt's peace agreement with Israel, and following Egypt's granting of political asylum to the deposed Shah.



The initiative to renew relations, which is being led by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is a definite shift in Iran's foreign policy.(1) The first indication of this shift was Ahmadinejad's announcement, during his May 2007 visit to the UAE, that Iran was willing to renew relations with Egypt.(2) The initiative then gained momentum, with reciprocal visits by Iranian and Egyptian officials between September 2007 and February 2008.(3)



Tehran's motive for rapprochement with Egypt at this time appears to be to gain an advantage in its power struggle with the U.S. To this end, Iran is seeking to expand its sphere of influence beyond its traditional proxies in the Middle East, namely Syria, Hizbullah, and the Palestinian organizations. Discerning Egypt's weakening position in the Arab world and a cooling in its relations with the West, Iran is hoping to pry it away from the bloc of moderate Middle East countries, taking advantage of Egypt's rivalry with Saudi Arabia for hegemony in the Arab world. Such a development would be a heavy blow to the U.S. in its struggle with Iran.



Accordingly, Ahmadinejad's associates, and media outlets affiliated with him, have been emphasizing the importance of renewing Egypt-Iran relations.(4) They are pointing out that Egypt would benefit such a rapprochement because Iran could help it develop nuclear technology and also help it build influence both in the Middle East and beyond – namely, in Central and East Asia.



However, while Iran is trying to rush ahead with renewing relations, Egypt appears hesitant, probably out of reluctance to cross the line to join the fundamentalist axis as an Iran proxy.(5) One consideration that may tip the balance for Egypt is its awareness of Iran's growing prominence in the region, and of its influence on regional forces, including the Shi'ites in Iraq, Hizbullah in Lebanon, and Hamas in Palestine. At the same time, Egypt worries that renewing relations with Iran may jeopardize its relationship with the U.S.; for this reason, Egypt is emphasizing that after it renews relations with Iran it could mediate in the U.S.-Iran conflict.



Egypt is also using the Iran card in its current crisis with the West. Over the past few months, Egypt's relations with the U.S. have become increasingly tense, following Congress's decision to freeze some aid to Egypt. Egypt's relations with the E.U. have also cooled somewhat, both because of the European Parliament resolution condemning its human rights situation, and because of tension with Israel following the border breach at Rafah.



Nevertheless, Egypt remains suspicious of Iran's intentions. While it has publicly supported Iran's right to develop nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, articles in the Egyptian press reveal some concern about the potential military uses of Iran's nuclear capabilities. Furthermore, Egyptian columnists have argued that Iran's policies vis-à-vis Hizbullah, the Gulf states, Iraq, and the Palestinians are a cause for apprehension rather than trust. The Egyptian press has also implied that Iran was involved in Hamas's border breach, with the aim of undermining Egypt's security.(6)

Iran's Aim in Rapprochement with Egypt: Undermining U.S. Power, Gaining Regional Dominance

Statements by senior Iranian officials, and also in Sobh-e Sadeq, the mouthpiece of Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei circulated among the Revolutionary Guards, have made it clear that Iran's aim is to expel the U.S. from the region and thus tip the balance of power in its own favor. On a recent visit to Cairo, Ali Larijani, Ali Larijani, the representative of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in Iran's Supreme National Security Council, told the Iranian news agency Fars: "Iran must not allow the U.S. and others to undermine its relations and cooperation [with other Middle East countries]... The dominant countries in the region will have more freedom, and more room to advance towards the future, once America's exclusive [hegemony] collapses and it suffers a defeat..."(7)

On another occasion, Larijani said: "With the decline of America's exclusive status [as the sole dominant force in the Middle East]... Iran and Egypt, the strongest countries in the region, have a chance to play a greater role in stabilizing the [Middle East] by acting in cooperation... Such cooperation will benefit all the Arab and Muslim countries."(8)

A January 1, 2008 article in Sobh-e Sadeq likewise emphasized that Iran, as the defender of the Muslim nation and of Islamic interests, should assume a leadership role in the Middle East and ally with other countries for protection against Western domination: "Iran can and should be the one to lay the foundation for relations in the region, with the primary aim of defending the interests of the Muslim nations without intervention from foreign elements. Such relations can dispel the fear [felt by some] countries in the region regarding the 'Iranian threat,' and [help them to] distinguish the real threat [i.e. the one posed by the U.S. and the West] from the imagined threat [posed by Iran].

"Acceptance of this scenario, in which Iran acts as a buttress shielding the Arab and Muslim countries from the greedy attacks by the Western world – especially those by the U.S. and the Zionist regime... can form a basis for restoring good relations and for forming alliances [that span] the region...

"Concord among the dominant forces in the Arab and Muslim world is always displeasing to the West, especially to the U.S. and to the Zionist regime. But with wisdom and intelligence, the wise and farseeing [people] in the region can defeat the West's implausible propaganda..."

Iran Recognizes Egypt's Importance in the Region

Sobh-e Sadeq went on to describe Egypt's strategic importance in the Middle East, framing it as a reason for Iran to renew relations with it: "...The geopolitical status of Egypt, which is located at the crossroads of three continents (Africa, Asia and Europe); its control of the Suez Canal; its enormous capabilities in industry, agriculture and tourism... its proximity to the North African countries; its contiguity with occupied Palestine; the activity of [Egyptian] Islamic movements like the Muslim Brotherhood; and countless other factors all conspire to make Egypt an important and strategic player [in the region]... Despite the ups and downs in Egypt's regional, Arab, and Muslim status over the three decades since it signed the Camp David accords, we must acknowledge that this country is, thanks to its immense political, cultural, religious and economic capabilities as well as its geopolitical [advantages], still the leader of the Arab world in many respects. Consequently, it is regarded as a significant rival of Saudi Arabia, which sees itself as the 'mother' of the Muslim world...

"Iran, cognizant of Egypt's strategic status, cannot overlook this excellent opportunity [to renew relations between the two countries]. The Egyptian government can form a safe bridge to relations between Iran and North Africa; [that is,] it can prepare the ground for warmer relations [between Iran and] countries like Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. [Moreover,] a close relationship among Tehran, Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad will play an invaluable role in resolving regional crises, and will frustrate the U.S.'s and the Zionist regime's attempts over the last few years to shift political leadership [of the region] from Cairo to the Gulf states."(9)

Relations with Iran – A Way to Boost Egypt's Regional Status

Iran has been advancing the argument that it is only with its help that Egypt can rebuild its prestige and regain its status as leader of the Arab and Muslim world. In the same article, Sobh-e Sadeq said: "The Egyptian government cannot regain and consolidate its lost [leadership] position without Iran's help; therefore it has no choice but to rely on stable Cairo-Tehran relations..." Iran has also attempted to offer Egypt incentives, in the form of help with its nuclear program, as well as access to East and Central Asia – on condition that Egypt relinquish the aid it currently receives from the U.S.(10)

During his visit to Cairo, Larijani stated that Iran was willing to assist Egypt with its nuclear program and stressed that this would be carried out under supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency. He said: "Should Egypt request such assistance, Iran will [extend it] without delay, providing that the move is monitored by the IAEA."(11)

Sobh-e Sadeq likewise referred to nuclear cooperation between the two countries, saying: "The Egyptian government and people can be among Iran's [partners] in the 'Nuclear OPEC' project [i.e. the association of countries with nuclear capabilities]. Until 1986, Egypt was a pioneer of nuclear technology in the Muslim world, but Western pressure and repeated threats from the Zionist regime forced it to halt its nuclear program... Nuclear cooperation between Iran and Egypt will prompt [all] the countries in the region to benefit from Iran's nuclear technology. [This technology] will be placed at their disposal at a very low cost, [and they will be able to utilize it] without making any concessions [to the West] or depending upon [its assistance]."(12)

Sobh-e Sadeq also argued that Iran could provide an alternative to Egypt's alliance with the U.S.: "By giving up the $2 billion in aid from the U.S., and with Iran's help, the Egyptian government can prepare the ground for [gaining influence] in East and Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Southwest Asia. Iran's technological and economic potential as an exporter of engineering services, an investor in industry and energy, and a source of at least half a million tourists who visit Cairo annually, as well as its proven experience in constructing dams, grain silos, roads, breakwaters, seaports, power plants and communications centers, and, most importantly, the revival of cultural, social and religious relations between Iran and Egypt – can all [make Iran and Egypt] into a paradigm of Islamic civilization in the modern world..."

"Iran has capabilities that enable it to restore Egypt's historical status [as a major influence in] developments in the Middle East. Iran's power, and its influence in these developments – particularly in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon – can provide Egypt with a new toehold [in these countries]...(13)

Egypt Is Openly Reluctant to Renew Relations with Iran

As Iran expresses enthusiasm, and even pushes to renew relations, Egypt seems to be hesitating.(14) Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abu Gheit outlined Egypt's position on this issue:

"Iran is an influential power in the Gulf. For the last two or three years... it has been trying to involve itself in Arab problems so as to gain influence that will serve it in its struggle vis-à-vis the West. Thus, Egypt believes that Iran has a problem with the Arab world, and that its interference in [Arab] problems is detrimental to Arab interests. This is Egypt's position at this stage...

"Egypt is trying to convey the following message to Iran: Do not insist on making Arab problems your business [and an element in] your relations with the [West] and with the [U.N.] Security Council. You must strive to reach a reasonable and peaceful settlement with the international community [regarding your nuclear dossier], through [dialogue with] the IAEA and the Security Council. Otherwise, there will be negative consequences for you, which will inevitably be very harmful for the entire region. Egypt, [in the meantime,] is trying to ensure the stability of the region, since stability paves the way to development. That is one aspect [of our position towards Iran].

"A second aspect is Egypt's persistent demand to declare the [Middle East] a zone free of WMDs and nuclear weapons, because the number of nuclear countries in the region is constantly increasing, with no end in sight... Experience has shown that nuclear weapons are not the solution, and are not even an effective deterrent. They just sit in storage and cost a lot of money...

"A [third] aspect of our relations [with Iran] is the bilateral aspect. We are trying to overcome the present [obstacles] through [bilateral] negotiations.

"Finally, there is the matter of Egypt's position regarding the region, as opposed to Iran's... Were we to ignore Iran's influence in the Lebanese issue, for example, or its relations with Hizbullah; were we to ignore [Iran's] relations with Hamas and its ability to support it, strengthen it and influence its positions; were we to ignore Iran's presence in the south and other regions of Iraq, and its contacts with its long-standing [allies in that country] – [were we to ignore all this] we would be shutting its eyes [to reality]... The Arab problems in the region should be dealt with by the Arabs, and not by other forces inside or outside the region...

"Let me stress that there is no conflict between Egypt and Iran. Egypt recognizes Iran's value, and respects it as a religious [force] with a [distinguished] Islamic history. Egypt also appreciates Iran's influence in East Asia, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan and in the Gulf... [However], it would be inconceivable for Egypt to consent to [establish] full and normal relations with a country that reveres the man who assassinated [the late] Egyptian president [Anwar Sadat]. There is an Egyptian consensus [on this]..."(15)

In Egyptian Press, Arguments For and Against Rapprochement

Egypt Could Mediate between Iran and U.S.

Op-eds in the Egyptian press have presented arguments for and against Egypt's renewing relations with Iran. In the Egyptian government daily Al-Ahram, Dr. Muhammad Al-Sa'id 'Abd Al-Mumin, professor of Iranian studies at 'Ain Shams University, wrote in favor of rapprochement: "Egypt should reassess its position regarding the advantages of relations with Iran. Egypt's interests must not be [dictated] by the media struggles between Iran and the West, or between Iran and Israel. On the contrary: Egypt should use this media struggle to promote its interests, and can do so in various ways. For example, Egyptian diplomacy can mediate [between Iran and the West]. [Egypt] has done this successfully in the past, and has managed to solve various problems [in this capacity], thus gaining a superior position and reaping political, economic and cultural benefits...

"Some claim that rapprochement with Iran would [jeopardize] Egypt's relations with the U.S. [But] the U.S., Egypt and Iran have already proved that relations between two countries can serve the interests of a third party, instead of being at [this third party's] expense. [For example,] relations between Iran and the Gulf states [serve the interests of] the U.S. while Egypt's relations with the U.S. and Israel [benefit] the Palestinians and the Syrians. Thus, Egypt-Iran relations could benefit the U.S., provided that Egypt is allowed to serve as a proper intermediary, [promoting] good U.S.-Iran relations and [helping them] to resolve their differences. Egypt has vast experience in this area...

"Global developments have undoubtedly increased the importance of [Egypt and Iran's] roles in the region. Thus, the[se two countries] must reassess their relationship."(16)

The Arabs Must Unite against the Threat of a Nuclear Iran

However, Samah 'Abdallah, a senior member of the Egyptian Journalists Union, argued against renewing relations, stating that Egypt and the Arab world should prepare for the possibility of an Iran with nuclear weapons. He wrote in the government daily Al-Ahram: "According to the naïve analysis presented in many Egyptian papers, Iran is [nothing more than] a neighboring country that maintains good relations with the Arabs. Therefore, its attaining nuclear weapons would [only] benefit the Arab countries in their struggle against Israel.

"This logic is faulty, since it runs counter to the basic principles of international relations. It also clashes with the historical facts, which demonstrate that since the Persian Empire, the border between Iran and the Arab [world] has always been one of tension and clashes, and [has only rarely been one] of cooperation.

"[An Iranian] nuclear weapon would create a significant imbalance of power in the Gulf region, and [Iran] would emerge as a regional power, with a very long reach. This would inevitably have a detrimental effect on the interests of the Arab and Gulf states, and on Egypt's role in the region…

"Iran seems determined to pursue its plans of enriching uranium on its own soil. Presumably, it will eventually attain the ability to manufacture nuclear weapons, regardless of its assurances that [its nuclear program] is for peaceful purposes. If Iran attains this technological [capability] but refrains from manufacturing nuclear weapons, it would be very odd indeed in a world full of challenges that recognizes nothing but power.

"Thus, there is only one [way] for the Arab countries to safeguard their interests while staying clear of the current Iran-U.S. conflicts. They must prepare for the possibility [of Iranian attaining nuclear weapons] by promoting inter-Arab military cooperation, and by developing their deterrence capabilities by all possible means, so as to preserve the balance [of power vis-à-vis Iran].

"Deterrence and [maintaining] the balance [of power] do not mean aggression and war… We have undeniable religious ties with Iran, as well as a [common] border. But this does not mean that our interests correspond. On the contrary: They clash, because of Iran's special interest in the Arabian Gulf… This is a call to develop Arab capabilities [that will enable us] to counter the potential dangers well in advance…"(17)

By Acclaiming Sadat's Assassin, Iran Encourages Terrorism

Karam Gaber, chairman of the board of the Egyptian weekly Roz Al-Yousef, wrote in his column: "It was Iran that widened the rift with its neighbors, including Egypt. And it was Iran that instigated a crisis [by naming] a street [in Tehran after Sadat's assassin,] Khaled Islambouli – a [dirty] little game that is totally out of line in relations between two countries.

"Despite this, Egypt has been reasonable and restrained in its approach to [rapprochement] with Iran. Egypt is not dragging its feet in cultivating [such] relations, but neither is it rushing into them. It is focusing primarily on preparing the ground and on restoring trust. [After all,] it was Iran that surrounded itself with a thick haze of suspicion…

"Is it conceivable that Iran should permit its relationship with Egypt to hinge on that [dirty] little game, [namely] the portrait of Islambouli [posted by Iran on the street bearing his name]? [Is it conceivable that Iran] should insist on naming a street after Sadat's assassin... – a blatant insult to the Egyptians?... Iran refuses to see that by insisting on [doing] so, it is [only] encouraging murderers and terrorists in their criminal acts. [It refuses to see] that it is poking its nose into [Egypt's] internal affairs as part of its failing [policy] of 'exporting the revolution,' which is aimed at undermining the security and stability of the neighboring countries. [Iran] is using ploys, false promises, and deception, as if [the Islambouli affair] were a central pillar of its foreign policy.

"Many years ago, Iran announced that it objected to the Israel-Egypt peace treaty – [and voicing such an opinion] was within its rights. However, [since then,] Iran's senior officials have often declared that Iran would make every effort to get [this treaty] revoked. This it has no right to do – especially considering [that its only] intention is to exploit the Palestinian issue. Not a single drop of Iranian blood has been spilled on Palestinian soil, and not a single [Iranian] rocket or bullet has been fired for the sake of Palestine – on whose account Iran is shedding so many tears.

"Iran should have honored the wishes of the Egyptian people, who chose peace after [fighting] long and difficult wars and paying a heavy price for the sake of Palestine. [Egypt fought for Palestine] with the lives of its sons, the blood [of its people], and its economic resources – rather than through slogans, speeches, and exploitation and abuse of others. Iran, [on the other hand], has never [really] supported the Palestinian people, and will never do so, for a very significant reason: They are Sunnis, while Iran supports only Shi'ites…

"Iran is encouraging Hizbullah, and assisting it with money and weapons – even though [Hizbullah's] escapade in the [last] war with Israel exacted a heavy toll in Lebanese lives. If Israel had the courage to publish the Winograd report, why can't Hizbullah and the Iranian lobby in Egypt find the courage to publish a report revealing the extent of the Lebanese people's losses?...

"Nevertheless, prior to [U.S. President's George] Bush's visit [to the country], Egypt insisted on making bold and clear [statements expressing] its objection to a [Western] military operation against Iran. It is no secret that, on several occasions, [Egyptian] President [Hosni] Mubarak advised the U.S. administration against launching such an exploit – lest the region become a breeding ground for terrorist organizations and attract terrorists from all over the world…

"Egypt does not conduct its relations with Iran for the U.S.'s sake; thus, it does not care what Bush says or what the U.S. is planning. Its [only] concern is to prevent more regional wars that will affect the situation in Egypt…"

Iran's Actions Do Not Inspire Trust – They Arouse Suspicion

Gaber continued: "Iran has done nothing to reassure its neighbors in the region. [On the contrary], its actions have aroused fear and suspicion. With regard to the nuclear issue, the countries in the region feel that Iran is aspiring to become the sole regional power, and to control and dominate every country in the region, thereby supplanting the American presence…

"Iran still insists on referring to the Arabian Gulf as 'the Persian Gulf'; it incites to ethnic and sectarian extremism; it endeavors to rekindle the blood-soaked historical conflict between Sunnis and Shi'ites; it toys with Iraq's security and stability; it plays the Hizbullah card in Lebanon; it attacks the UAE's islands, flaunting its power in the waters of the Gulf; and [it carries out] many other actions which inspire not trust, but apprehension and suspicion.

"Iran has attempted to improve its relations with the Gulf states only [to promote] its own interests – that is, to prevent the formation of a hostile Arab-U.S. lobby against it, as happened to former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. It seeks shelter under the Arab umbrella in its time of need, but has proposed no initiative to prove its good intentions… The Iran lobby in Egypt is a minority, devoid of influence – and nobody cares about its ideas, which ooze hatred and hostility…"(18)

*A. Savyon is Director of the Iranian Media Project; Y. Mansharof and L. Azuri are Research Fellows at MEMRI.

Endnotes:
(1) It is noteworthy that media affiliated with Ahmadinejad's political rival Ali Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and with reformist circles, have been critical of attempts to renew Iran-Egypt relations. See, for example, the editorial in the December 13, 2007 issue of the Iranian daily Jomhouri-ye Eslami.
(2) See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis Series No. 364, "Dispute in Iran over Renewing Relations with Egypt," June 15, 2007, http://www.memri.org/bin/articles.cgi?Page=countries&Area=iran&ID=IA36407.
(3) During this period, President Mubarak met in Cairo with Ali Larijani, the representative of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in Iran's Supreme National Security Council; with Khamenei's advisor Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri; and with Majlis Speaker Gholam Ali Hadad Adel. Another official who visited Egypt was Ala Al-Din Boroujerdi, chairman of Iran's Parliamentary Committee for National Security and Foreign Policy. Jomhouri-ye Eslami (Iran), January 3, 2008; IRNA (Iran), February 3, 2008; Aftab-e Yazd (Iran), February 2, 2008.
(4) At a press conference following his Cairo meeting with Egypt's foreign minister, Ali Larijani announced that "Iran sees its relations with Egypt as strategic," and that "there is no obstacle to reestablishing full diplomatic relations between Iran and Egypt." Aftab-e Yazd (Iran), January 2, 2008; IRNA (Iran), January 2, 2008.
(5) The differences between the attitude of Iran and that of Egypt is reflected in statements by their officials. Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said in early February 2008, "Tehran is on the verge of renewing diplomatic relations with Cairo, and awaits [only] a signal from it." (Tehran Times, Iran, February 2, 2008) On the other hand, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abu Al-Gheit told a press conference that "[Iran and Egypt] are still in the negotiations stage, with the intention of pressing forward." (Al-Ahram , Egypt, December 27, 2007)
(6) See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 1837, "Egyptian Press Criticizes Hamas for Rafah Border Breach; Breach 'A Grave Threat to Our National Security,'" February 8, 2008, http://www.memri.org/bin/articles.cgi?Page=archives&Area=sd&ID=SP183708.
(7) Fars (Iran), January 1, 2008.
(8) Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London) December 31, 2007. An ISNA article about the warming of Egypt-Iran relations stated: "The Egyptian people and government could not find a better model [for emulation] than the Iranian nation, [now that] they... have realized the need to fight the arrogance of certain superpowers [i.e. the West, headed by the U.S.] and their domination over the region and the Islamic world." (ISNA, Iran, December 19, 2007)
(9) Sobh-e Sadeq (Iran), January 1, 2008.
(10) Sobh-e Sadeq (Iran), January 1, 2008.
(11) Fars (Iran), January 1, 2008.
(12) Sobh-e Sadeq (Iran), January 1, 2008.
(13) Sobh-e Sadeq (Iran), January 1, 2008.
(14) Some Iranian circles have acknowledged Egypt's reluctance. For example, the former head of the Iranian Interests Office in Cairo, Hadi Khosroshahi, explained during a Mehr panel discussion: "The fact is that the Egyptian authorities do not [support] this move, and did not support it in the past... Egypt's security circles, which [President] Mubarak holds in especially high esteem, are likewise opposed to renewing relations with Iran, and whenever this move comes close to implementation, it fails due to their overt and covert opposition... Clearly, the Egyptians are not currently interested in establishing extensive relations with Iran. Under present conditions, they are trying to promote diplomatic relations with Tehran [only] in order to achieve specific aims in the process. Therefore, there is absolutely no truth in the enthusiastic claim that the renewal of relations is in the final stages [of implementation]. There is no reason to be rushing towards Egypt..." (Mehr, Iran, February 1, 2008). Also during the panel discussion, Tehran Times columnist Hassan Hanizadeh said, "Egypt regards the renewal of relations with Iran [only] as a means [to achieve certain ends]... We must be mindful of the fact that our problems with Egypt have not disappeared. Egypt is currently looking for a stick with which to [threaten] America. Iran must not become its trump card in its confrontation with the U.S..." (Mehr, Iran, February 1, 2008).
(15) Al-Rai (Kuwait), January 15, 2008. During a visit to Cairo, Majlis Speaker Hadad Adel was asked whether Iran planned to change the name of Islambouli Street in Tehran. Adel replied: "This problem is solvable... but unimportant." (Jomhouri-ye Eslami , Iran, February 3, 2008)
(16) Al-Ahram (Egypt), December 19, 2007.
(17) Al-Ahram (Egypt), January 9, 2008.
(18) Roz Al-Yousef (Egypt), February 2, 2008.