Egypt’s announcement that it is looking to re-establish full diplomatic ties with Iran is a troubling indication that its post-Mubarak foreign policy may be headed in a different and dangerous direction.
While full diplomatic relations between Egypt and Iran had broken off in 1979, the relationship between the two nations – long marked by mutual hostility and distrust – has actually grown even more contentious since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became Iran’s president in 2005.
Yet, this rift has now apparently diminished, as Egypt has begun to reevaluate its strategic priorities and diplomatic affiliations following the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. As Egypt’s Foreign Minister Nabil el-Arabi explained, “The Egyptian government doesn’t consider Iran to be an enemy state. We’re opening a new page with all countries, including Iran.”
A beneficiary of the 2011 Mideast rebellions, Iran has seen, among other things, the ouster of its longtime adversary Mubarak, its proxy Shiite organization Hezbollah take power in Lebanon, and its Sunni Persian Gulf foes face severe challenges to their rule. Moreover, the chaotic events of the past several months have taken Western focus off Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
So, not too surprisingly, the diplomatic rapprochement was warmly received in Tehran, evidenced by Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi’s statement: “A good relationship between the two countries will definitely help stability, security and development in the region.”
For many, Egypt’s flirtation with Iran is precisely the type of scenario they feared Mubarak’s ouster would generate. In fact, some see it as its first step toward jettisoning the pro-Western foreign policy of the Mubarak regime, one that will plunge the entire region into a morass of instability and danger.
Yet despite the worry that this ambassadorial tete-a-tete with Iran may be a reversal of longstanding Egyptian foreign policy, those concerns have been curtly dismissed by one Egyptian foreign ministry official: “We are pursuing with Tehran basic normal relations, no less, no more.” While that may eventually prove to be the case, additional actions undertaken by Egypt argue otherwise.
For example, at the same time it has re-opened the diplomatic door to Iran, Egypt has also called for an “easing of relations” with Syria. While relations between the two nations had always been strained under Mubarak’s presidency, they deteriorated rapidly when Syria’s strategic partnership with Iran became more pronounced after 2005.
Now, however, one Egyptian diplomat said Egypt believes the opportunity exists for “the resumption of good relations between the countries.” The first concrete evidence of these efforts came in a March 2011 visit to Syria by the new chief of Egyptian intelligence, Mamdouh Mawafi, in which he reportedly conveyed a “message of friendship.”
Added to the blossoming Syrian comradeship is Egypt’s apparent softened approach to Hamas. Specifically, Egypt has reportedly begun a re-examination of its blockade of the Gaza Strip. Begun in 2007 after Hamas took control of Gaza, the blockade has been used to prevent, however unsuccessfully, Iran and Syria from arming Hamas and other Gaza-based terror groups.
According to Egypt’s Foreign Minister, al-Arabi: “It is unbecoming of Egypt that its foreign policy be characterized by grave violations of the basic rules of international law, as is the case with Egypt’s stance on the siege of the Gaza Strip.”
For Israel – already angst ridden that Mubarak’s ouster will jeopardize its 30-year peace with Egypt – signs now point to a disturbing development. As one Egyptian political analyst explained, “In post-Mubarak Egypt, Cairo’s official position can be expected to gradually fall into line with the popular will…one freed from a close relationship with the U.S. and Israel.”
If the nature of Israel’s relationship with Egypt’s will now be dependent on the popular will of the Egyptian people, then Israelis can expect a severe chill. That was evident in recent comments by Arabi on the future of the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty. As he threatened to review and amend security arrangements agreed to in the pact, he warned: “We will not be a ‘strategic treasure’ for Israel as they used to say during the time of Mubarak.”
Of course, all these actions by Egypt have served to threaten its longtime role as a stabilizing force for the region, one that has been predicated on its willingness to maintain peace with Israel and limit its regional role to protecting its own borders.
As one Saudi analyst said about Egypt under Mubarak, Egypt “was a very important element for Middle Eastern stability.” Unfortunately, Egyptian policy moves have now placed Mideast stability in an extremely precarious position.
Specifically, news of the Egyptian and Iranian reconciliation comes as Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Gulf State partners find themselves ensnared in an escalating battle with Iran over the raging Shiite rebellions overwhelming the region, unrest they claim has been deliberately stoked by Iran.
Already under siege by disaffected Shiites at home and long fearful of Iran’s military buildup and pursuit of nuclear weapons – Egypt’s diplomatic forays have led many of them to conclude that post-Mubarak Egypt may no longer be a reliable and effective bulwark against Shiite Iran.
Still, some may argue that it is far too early to discern which path Egypt’s foreign policy is truly on, preferring to wait at least until the results of the September 2011 Egyptian presidential and parliamentary elections to better formulate an answer.
As they argue, it is still uncertain if Egypt will completely abandon its long established foreign policy agenda and pursue a course supporting opposition movements in Arab Gulf State autocracies or countries or groups that are still at war with Israel, such as Syria, Iran and Hamas.
While the jury may still be out on that question, it’s becoming clearer that Egypt’s early movement toward an Iranian-Syrian-Hamas strategic alliance indicates – at the very least – a preference for the latter course.
Frank Crimi is a writer living in San Diego, California. You can read more of Frank’s work at his blog, www.politicallyunbalanced.com.
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