Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in Cairo on Tuesday, February 5, 2013, marking the first time an Iranian president has visited Egypt since 1979, the year the two countries, Egypt and Iran, broke off diplomatic relations. Earlier, in June 2012, Mohammad Morsi visited Iran to attend the Non-Aligned Movements (NAM) Conference. The Muslim Brotherhood leader elected as President of Egypt is the first Egyptian president to visit Iran in decades. The ostensible reason for Ahmadinejad’s visit was participation in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Summit was slated for February 6-7 in Cairo. This also happens to be the first time Egypt has hosted the OIC Summit since its establishment in 1969.
Ahmadinejad would like nothing better than to elevate the diplomatic relations between the two countries during his visit. Iran is eager to resume diplomatic relations with the largest Arab Sunni state as a way to break out of the regional isolation. Egypt, under the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, is however, a bit more hesitant about resuming diplomatic relations, albeit, Morsi has abandoned Mubarak’s policy of isolating the Islamic Republic of Iran in the region.
In February 2011, soon after the fall of President Mubarak, Egypt allowed two Iranian warships through the Suez Canal on their way to the Syrian port of Tartous, rebuffing U.S. requests to prevent the Iranian passing through the Canal. The following year Egypt once again permitted Iranian warships to pass through the Suez Canal on their way to the Mediterranean Sea, aimed at providing military support for Hezbollah and the Assad regime. Egypt’s gesture towards Iran underscored Cairo’s intent of carrying out an independent foreign policy, which is to be neutral between the West and the revolutionary Islamist Iran. Moreover, Morsi intended the gesture toward Iran as pressure on the oil-rich Arab Gulf states hostile to Iran schemes in the Gulf. Cairo indicated that it will improve relations with Iran unless the Gulf States come through with cash for Egypt.
Iran broke its diplomatic relations with Egypt to protest Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel. Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s Supreme Leader, was additionally outraged by President Sadat for Egypt providing asylum to the deposed Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Iran then named a street in Tehran in honor of President Sadat’s murderer, Khaled al-Islambouli. Sadat’s successor, President Hosni Mubarak, in turn, supported Iraq against Iran during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988). Mubarak’s toppling prompted Iran’s leaders to send several of its officials to Cairo in an attempt to break the ice between the two regional heavyweights. These officials offered, among other things, economic assistance to Egypt.
One of the incentives Iranian officials have offered to Egypt is to encourage 5 million Iranians to visit Egypt annually. This, in the estimation of the Iranians and some Egyptian officials, would warm up the relationship while revitalizing Egypt’s tourism sector following two years of turmoil.
Mohammad Abbas Nagi, an Egyptian expert on Iran, pointed out to ABC-News on February 4, 2013 that, ”Despite the fact that restoring relations is a sovereign decision fully belonging to Egypt, I don’t see that Egypt will make a decision separate from the course of its relationship with the U.S. and Israel, for whom Iran is now the main issue.” Earlier on April 17, 2011, however, Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Menha Bakhour, in an interview with the Egyptian publication Almasry Alyoum asserted, “We are prepared to take a different view of Iran. The former regime (Mubarak’s) used to see Iran as an enemy, but we do not.”
Iran has hinted to Egypt the possibility of joining forces and collaborating with Egypt on the nuclear level. An Iranian-Egyptian nuclear partnership would be a game changer in the Middle East, and the impact would be felt by both Israel and the U.S. Currently, Iran’s only close ally in the region is Bashar Assad’s Syria, which is torn by a civil war. For Egypt, an alliance with Iran would free it from the stipulation imposed by the U.S. to maintain Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel as a condition for receiving U.S. aid. The joint forces would potentially be able to drive out western interests from the region. The Sunni-Shia divide constrains such an alliance at the moment. The current situation in Syria where Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are supporting the Sunni opposition against the Assad regime while Shiite Iran backs Assad makes full diplomatic relations untenable.
Since Egypt depends on Arab Gulf states and the U.S. to rescue it from economic disaster, it is unlikely that full partnership will arise between Egypt and Iran beyond good prospects to break the ice. Morsi’s economic troubles at home will discourage him from risking the alienation of his Arab Gulf states. Egypt’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Kamel Amr stated clearly that Egypt won’t improve its ties with Iran at the expense of undermining Gulf Arab security. He declared that, “The security of the Gulf countries is a red line for Egypt.”
Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb, head of Cairo’s historic Al-Azhar, the 1000-year old supreme Sunni-Muslim institution, told the visiting Ahmadinejad that his Shiite government must refrain from interfering in the affairs of the Arab Gulf States and must give full rights to Sunnis living in Iran. Al-Tayeb urged Ahmadinejad “to respect Bahrain as a sisterly Arab state and rejected the spread of Shiism in Sunni countries.
Another issue Ahmadinejad insinuated as a way to bridge Egyptian-Iranian differences is by unified support for the Palestinians, especially the Hamas terrorist organization based in Gaza. In an interview with the Beirut based Mayadeen TV, on the eve of his trip to Egypt, Ahmadinejad stated that “The political geography of the region will change if Iran and Egypt take a unified position on the Palestinian question.”
Two years of bloodletting in Syria and the revolution in Egypt that brought down the Mubarak regime and saw the election of the Muslim Brotherhood (Hamas is an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood) leader Muhammad Morsi as President of Egypt, changed the orientation of the Gaza based Islamist Hamas terrorist organization. Khaled Meshal, Hamas’ political head moved out of Damascus to Qatar and the mediation of President Morsi during the Pillar of Defense operation in Gaza, shifted the patronage of Hamas from Iran to Egypt.
According to Eitan Meyr, a fellow at the Institute for counter-terrorism in Herzliya, Israel, “Iran is using Islamic Jihad to try to take over Gaza.” He added, “Hamas is more afraid of them (Islamic Jihad) than of us.” Myer pointed out that Egypt, Israel, and Hamas share a common interest in denying Iran a foothold in Gaza. “We are not friends but we do have mutual interests in denying the presence of an Iranian proxy on our doorstep.”
Ahmadinejad, it appears, is likely to return to Tehran empty-handed, unless of course, Iran can replace American and Gulf Arabs generosity. Iran, being squeezed economically by western sanctions, is highly unlikely to do it. At the moment at least, Egyptian-Iranian relations are going nowhere.
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