"Thirty years after the 1979 Revolution the Islamic Republic has consolidated its regional power in the Gulf."
However, ambitions to play a more pivotal role in the Middle Eastern region and bury the hatchet with Egypt, the only Arab country without an embassy in Tehran, involve compromising the regimes ideology and prevailing over domestic opposition. Irans decade long efforts to reestablish diplomatic relations with Cairo have reached a new low point, following recent reports regarding a secret Hezbollah network in Egypt.
In April 2009, Egyptian authorities disclosed the arrest of approximately 50 people, suspected of planning attacks inside Egypt. Local senior officials instantly blamed Iran for using agents of Lebanon based Hezbollah to gain a foothold in Egypt and destabilize its regime. Iran’s ongoing financial and military support to Hamas is not favored by Cairo either, particularly the weapons being smuggled through tunnels from Rafah into the Gaza Strip (Al-Ahram Apr.16-22, 2009) Will these recent developments end a decade of attempted rapprochement or is it merely another ephemeral episode, during the past 30 years of charged relations between the Arab Republic of Egypt and the Islamic Republic of Iran?
Shortly after the revolutionary government consolidated its power in 1979, Iran cut off all ties with Egypt, with the exception of joint ventures such as the Misr-Iran Textile Company (MIRATEX) in Ataqa Suez (since 1974). Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Republic renounced its diplomatic relations with Egypt for three primary reasons: the Israeli-Egyptian Peace treaty of 1978; Egypt’s tightening relationship with the U.S.; and the asylum Egypt granted the deposed Shah. In July 1980 Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi died in Egypt, and was given a state funeral by President Anwar al-Sadat.
Iranian animosity grew when Egypt backed Saddam Hussein’s Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). Approximately two thirds of Egypt’s military exports went to support Iraq during the war. Concurrently, the Islamic Republic began celebrating the martyrdom of Khaled al-Islambuli, the army officer executed for the assassination of Egypt’s President Sadat on October 6th, 1981. Shortly after President Sadat’s assassination, Iran issued an official postage stamp bearing Islambuli’s image, named one of Tehran’s main thoroughfares in his honor, and posted a large scale mural on the side of a prominent building in Tehran, memorializing Islambuli as hero of the global Islamic resistance movement. Egypt also maintains that for years, Iran has been sheltering fugitive “members of violent Islamist organizations” convicted by Egyptian courts (Al-Ahram Jan.15-21, 2004).
Despite this mutual enmity, in the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq War, the death of Ayatollah Khomeini (1989) and the collapse of the Soviet Union (1991), Iran and Egypt initiated sporadic bi-lateral commercial ventures during the 1990s (Iran Daily Apr.3, 2006). After President Mohammad Khatami assumed office in 1997, relations between Iran and Egypt improved. This improvement began with a series of cordial gestures, including a notable phone call between President Khatami and his counterpart President Hosni Mubarak in 2000; the establishment of the non-governmental Iran-Egypt Friendship Society; organization of two trade fairs (1999-2001), and the historical meeting of Mubarak and Khatami in Geneva on the sidelines of the UN technology summit in December 2004.
Nevertheless, additional attempts by President Khatami’s pro-reform government to reinstate full diplomatic relations with Cairo were poorly received in Egypt and encountered strong opposition among hard-line conservative factions in Iran. On several occasions Egyptian officials expressed displeasure with the ongoing-Iranian insult to the memory of their late president. In midst of Tehran City Council debate about changing the name of Islambuli Street in May 2001, Kayhan International responded with a fierce editorial column arguing against this “wrong and totally unjustified” initiative (May.28, 2001).
Four years later, under pressure from the Iranian Foreign Ministry, the Tehran City Council issued its final decision to rename the street al-Intifada, and Iranian pro-reform publications enthusiastically reported on President Mubarak’s official visit to Tehran the following month. Yet this visit did not materialize, and a renewed mural of Islambuli, stretched on the side of a four-story-high building, continued to overlook the street that bore his name. Pressure groups, such as the Ansar-e Hezbollah, aligned with ultra-conservative members of the regime, also organized a vocal public rally and released a statement, quoted by the Egyptian weekly Al-Ahram, arguing that “foreign policy players and deceiving city council members are mistaken to think they can strip Islambuli, one of the heroes of Islam’s international movement, of the medal Ayatollah Khomeini gave him” (Jan.15-21, 2004).
The election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005 did not disrupt Tehran’s attempts to renew diplomatic relations with Cairo. In November 2005 Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki met with President Mubarak, to convey Tehran’s appreciation for Egypt’s support of Iran’s nuclear program (Iran Daily Nov. 21, 2005). While visiting the UAE, in May 2007, President Ahmadinejad even declared that if the Egyptian government announces its readiness, Tehran is prepared to establish an Iranian embassy in Cairo immediately (Rooz May.20, 2007). In response to this declaration, the hard-line Iranian daily Jomhuri-ye Eslami disparaged Mubarak’s regime, claiming Egypt’s president has been operating as “a Zionist agent and middleman for America” over the past several decades. It also stressed that Iran should normalize relations with Egypt only if Cairo complies with three basic conditions: Condemning the Camp David Accords; eliminating all traces of the Shah in Cairo; and discontinuing its meddling in the internal affairs of other nations in the region for the service of “the Zionists and America” (Baztab May.21, 2007).
Despite criticism from Iran’s conservative media, in December 2007 Iran’s former nuclear negotiator ‘Ali Larijani visited Cairo and met with local officials. The following month Gholam ‘Ali Haddad-’Adel, the Speaker of Iranian Parliament, participated in a conference sponsored by the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC), held in Egypt. This visit preceded an official meeting between ‘Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri, a senior advisor to the Supreme Leader ‘Ali Khamene’i, and President Mubarak in late January 2008. Iranian senior officials had not visited Cairo since the 1979 Revolution, let alone three times in the span of two months.
Yet perhaps the most unusual initiative by the Islamic Republic occurred in June 2008, when the Iranian interest office in Cairo presented Sheikh al-Azhar Mohammad Sayyed Tantawi with Iran’s request to open a branch of al-Azhar, for the purpose of teaching the Sunni doctrine in the “Shi’i heartland” in Tehran (Daily New Egypt Aug.7, 2008). The request, which followed former President Khatami’s visit to al-Azhar in March 2007, also suggested cultural cooperation and exchange of scholars from religious universities in Cairo and Tehran (Tehran Times Jun.15, 2008).
As Iran’s relations with Egypt seemed to be improving, sensitivities were aroused in July 2008, after Iran’s state television network aired the documentary “The Assassination of Pharaoh”. Sponsored and produced by the Iranian Committee for Commemoration of Martyrs of the Global Islamic Movement, the film glorified Islambuli and denounced President Sadat as “a treacherous Pharaoh”. Shortly afterward, Egyptian security forces raided the Cairo office of the Iranian television channel al-’Alam, and the Egyptian Football Association announced the cancelation of Egypt’s friendly match with Iran, scheduled for August 20th in the UAE. On behalf of the Iranian government, an anonymous official argued that: “Given the freedom of speech in Iran, private organizations do not necessarily speak for the government on different issues” (Tehran Times Jul.9, 2008). But this was to no avail and two months later, in September 2008, al-Tantawi rejected Tehran’s offer to open a branch of al-Azhar in Tehran (IPS Sep.16, 2008). The same month the Doha-based Egyptian Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi re-launched a stern verbal attack on Iran’s “imperial dreams” to infiltrate the Arab Sunni world and distribute its revolutionary Shi’i doctrine (Iran Pulse#25).
The September dispute, which generated a sectarian rift among Sunni and Shi’i scholars, relaxed the following month with “warm exchange” of gestures between al-Qaradawi and ‘Ali Akbar Velayati, the Foreign Policy Advisor to Khamene’i, at the October conference in Doha (Press TV Oct.14, 2008). Yet this tepid reconciliation did not last long. The confrontation in Gaza between Israel and Hamas in early 2009, unleashed vast protests of militant groups in Tehran against Egypt’s policy toward the Palestinians. Fars News Agency even reported of $1.5 million reward offered by one of these groups for the assassination of President Mubarak (Gooya News Jan.4, 2009). Iranian Foreign Ministry promptly denied the regime’s involvement in such a scheme (Egypt News Jan.12, 2009).
The occasional eruptions of anti-Egyptian sentiments in the streets of Tehran and in the hard-line press, colliding with Egypt’s concerns over the “danger of Shia-fication”, as the editor-in-chief of Al-Sharq al-Awsat Tariq al-Homayed has coined it, cast a dark shadow over Iranian-Egyptian relations. Following the April 2009 disclosure of suspected Hezbollah cells in Egypt, strong accusations were made again against Iran by Egypt’s public prosecutor and Foreign Ministry officials (Al-Masry al-Youm Apr.9, 2009). Four days prior to Egypt’s formal disclosure, Iran’s foreign minister Mottaki, in a meeting with students at the Tarbiat Modares University, had stated that restoring ties with Egypt under the current circumstances is no longer on the agenda for Iran (IRNA Apr.5, 2009).
The charged interplay between Tehran and Cairo raises questions as to the genuine strategic interests of Iran in restoring diplomatic relations with Egypt, during the course of the past decade. A partial explanation may lie in the well quoted phrase, attributed to Sun-Tzu: “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer”. Another explanation may be connected with the race for hegemony in the region. Following U.S. operations in Afghanistan since 2001 and the elimination of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, one of Iran’s main concerns rests with the regional influence of Saudi Arabia, the principal ally of the U.S. in the Gulf. It is also linked with Iran’s aspirations to strengthen its bargaining position in the international arena and particularly in the eyes of the U.S. Reinstatement of diplomatic relations with Egypt could have eased the Islamic Republic’s relative isolation in the international system, especially in relation to its nuclear development program. Increased cooperation between the two countries might have improved Iran’s ties with the Arab world and support its role within a unified pro-Palestinian Islamic front.
On the surface, it seems that despite past tension, domestic opposition and harsh rhetoric reflected in the conservative press, the Iranian government was (and still is) ready to make short term concessions in its foreign policy toward Egypt, for possible diplomatic advantages in the long term. In contrast to Tehran, however, Cairo does not seem particularly eager to restore full diplomatic ties with Iran at this point in timeâ–
Dr. Liora Hendelman-Baavur is a research fellow at the Center for Iranian Studies.
May 20, 2009