29 June - 5 July 2000
Issue No. 488
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Bridges over troubled watersBy Dina Ezzat
In a ground-breaking development, President Hosni Mubarak telephoned Iranian President Mohamed Khatami to congratulate him on Iran's entry into the Group of 15 which held its 10th summit in Cairo last week.
Would the call put Egyptian-Iranian diplomatic relations on the fast lane? Egyptian and Iranian diplomats answer in the affirmative.
The significance of the call goes far beyond Iran's admission to the Third World economic grouping. The conversation need not have taken place at all for a letter had already been sent from Mubarak, who chaired the summit, to Khatami -- whose country had requested admission -- confirming that Tehran's request had been accepted.
"Egypt has had a clear and systematic policy of building positive relations with Iran," said Foreign Minister Amr Moussa shortly before arriving in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur to head Egypt's delegation to the ministerial meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC). "This last call is clearly a step further," Moussa said, adding that he planned to have a lengthy session with his Iranian counterpart Kamal Kharazi in Kuala Lumpur to discuss bilateral relations.
Speaking to reporters in the Malaysian capital, Kharazi said Iran believes it has "positive relations" with Egypt. He said Mubarak's phone call allowed for "serious progress" in relations. "We hope that our dialogue will continue. We hope that the future will witness big steps on the road to improving diplomatic relations and hopefully restoring them," Kharazi said.
Egyptian-Iranian relations have been severed for over two decades following the 1979 Iranian revolution which overthrew the shah. The revolution's leaders resented the fact that Egypt offered refuge to the shah and his family after they fled. Iran has also consistently attacked Egypt for its ties with "the Zionist entity," while Egypt has often lashed out at Iran for its attempts to "export its Islamic revolution" to neighbouring Muslim Arab countries."
However, in 1997, former Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Walayati arrived in Cairo on an official visit to invite Egypt to take part in an OIC summit in Tehran later that year. Mubarak designated Moussa to head Egypt's delegation to the summit. Since then, the war of words between the two sides has come to a near halt while business and economic cooperation has improved. But expectations of a full restoration of diplomatic ties during the past three years have yet to be realised.
Officials on both sides have spoken positively about each other's efforts to restore relations. But Egypt says it cannot venture that far so long as the name of a street in Tehran, named after Khaled El-Islambuli, who assassinated President Anwar El-Sadat in 1981, remains unchanged. For their part, Iranian officials say Egypt should not complain, seeing that the shah is buried in Cairo.
However, last week's call has apparently gone some way towards easing tension. "The fact that this call took place has one meaning: Egypt is ready more than ever for a warmer rapprochement with Iran," said an Egyptian diplomatic source. According to the same source, if this was not the case, President Mubarak could have instead had Moussa contact Kharazi.
Iranian diplomats are also impressed by the telephone call, describing it as a clear sign that rapprochement, so far moving on a "a slow but certain" pace, is now ready to move into a higher gear.
"For the past three years our two countries have managed to improve their relations through increasing economic cooperation," one Iranian diplomatic source said. "Now it seems more could happen."
Iran also says it appreciates Egypt's efforts to support its request to join the G-15. "Egypt expressed comprehensive and total support for Iran's membership in the G-15," said Ali Qassami, head of Iran's interest section in Egypt.
While Moussa and Kharazi discuss future moves on the official level a group of Iranian and Egyptian intellectuals are expected to meet in Tehran next week to discuss future bilateral ties between their countries. Political experts from Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies will take part in the seminar which will also discuss the future of the Middle East.
"Both our countries have a high regional and international status, so it is only normal that the two countries should discuss their bilateral relations and the future of their region together," Qassami said.
In addition, Iranian Minister of Information Attallah Mohagarani may visit Egypt late next month, the first such visit by an Iranian official since the Iranian revolution.
The big question now is whether official and non-official contacts will lead to a restoration of full diplomatic ties before the end of this year. Officials on both sides say it's a matter of political will.
Doing business with Tehran - 4 - 10 November 1999
Taking time on Iran - 1 - 7 July 1999
What's in a name? -24 - 30 June 1999
Afro-Asian gateways -18 - 24 June 1998
A macabre situation - 10 - 16 June 1999