Al-Ahram Weekly Online   25 - 31 December 2003
Issue No. 670
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Handshake heard 'round the region'

A handshake between Presidents Mubarak and Khatami brought high hopes for a breakthrough in Egyptian-Iranian relations. Rasha Saad examines the possibilities

A widely publicised handshake between President Hosni Mubarak and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammed Khatami, earlier this month took many by surprise and highlighted relations between the two Middle Eastern countries. Khatami and Mubarak met briefly -- for the first time since 1979 -- outside a UN technology summit in Geneva earlier this month. Although reportedly no specific issues were discussed, the meeting was described as a step forward in bringing the two countries together.

Relations between the two countries were severed in 1980, a year after Egypt signed the US- brokered Camp David peace accords with Israel. Relations worsened when Egypt supported Iraq in its 1980-1988 war with Iran. However, trade and other ties have been improving since the 1990s.

To prominent writer Fahmy Howeidy, an expert in Iranian affairs, the meeting came as little surprise. He explained that during the past few years arrangements were made for possible meetings between the two presidents during international and regional events, but in the end one of the two leaders would fail to attend. "I think it was a mere coincidence that both leaders were present at the conference that enabled them to meet at last," he said.

While Howeidy believes that the meeting is indeed an important event, he does not consider it a substantial turn in relations. Howeidy explains that it remains to be seen if the meeting will yield any significant steps towards rapprochement.

Commenting on the timing and importance of the meeting, Amin Sabooni, editor-in-chief of the Iran Daily newspaper published in Tehran, said that the "big meeting" in Geneva could not have come at a more sensitive time. He added that the ability and willingness of Iran to restore full and meaningful ties with Egypt is at an all time high. According to Sabooni, the Middle East is facing substantial challenges and common sense dictates that two regional heavyweights like Egypt and Iran cooperate. "Our two peoples deserve a much better quality of interaction consistent with their historic collaboration, cultural affinities, national interests, and the search for peace, progress and prosperity," he said.

Although officials on both sides were keen on bringing to fruition the expectations that resulted from the meeting, they pointed out that there are still differences between the two countries.

After the meeting, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher said that "many steps forward have been achieved" and that he is "hopeful the two countries would reach agreement soon on pending issues". He also noted that "constant contacts are going on between the two countries on resuming normal relations."

Khatami pointed out differences between both countries over some issues. Speaking on his way back home from Switzerland, he said that both Iran and Egypt favour an extension of ties and that Mubarak's views on issues such as Iraq and Palestine are close to those of Iran, but there are "certain differences in other areas".

Though officials from both sides refrained from naming these differences, an acknowledged bone of contention between both countries is the fact that Cairo gave asylum to the deposed Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi -- who is buried in Egypt -- and that Iran named a street in Tehran after Khaled El-Islamboly, one of the assassins of late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.

Both issues are usually brought up in the Egyptian press whenever Mubarak receives an invitation from Tehran, such as the recent invitation to the Islamic Republic for the economic summit of developing countries (D8) which will take place in the second half of February. According to Makram Mohamed Ahmed, editor-in-chief of El- Mussawar magazine, Mubarak's visit to Tehran is contingent on the street being renamed. "If Iran lifted the name of Sadat's assassin from the Tehran street... all elements that obstruct mutual relations will eventually be lifted," he said.

However, according to informed sources on both sides, the reluctance to establish normal relations between both countries is far from being a dispute over the name of a street and the burial of the Shah in Egypt.

Iranian Vice-President Mohamed Abtahi said in a recent interview that during top level talks and behind closed doors the issues of the name of the street and the Shah's final resting place were not of major importance. "I do not believe that on the official level these issues are even addressed. I believe that the weight of both countries and the role they can play together regionally and internationally is far more important than the name of a street or the burial of the Shah in Egypt that is protested by Iranian hard-liners. These are trivial matters," he said.

The security files on both countries is believed to be the real culprit. Perhaps the best evidence of this is President Mubarak's statement in January that ties between both countries could not be normalised as long as Tehran gave sanctuary to "Egyptian terrorists". Egypt alleges that Iran is harbouring members of violent Islamist organisations who have been convicted in Egyptian courts during the past decades and that these members are operating out of Iran. Iran -- which handed over two years ago Ahmed Hussein Egeiza, a leading member of the Islamic group Talae' Al-Fath -- denies the charge.

According to informed sources, Tehran is trying to persuade Cairo that priority should be given to establishing full ties followed by negotiations on the outstanding issues. On the other hand, Cairo insists that all pending points should be resolved before the restoration of full relations. Egyptian diplomats often hint that it was Iran who severed ties in 1980, not the Egyptians. They contend that despite receiving the Shah, Cairo welcomed the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

However, Iranians still feel that the ball is in Egypt's court and are privately accusing the Egyptians of being reluctant to re-establish full ties.

Gamila Kadivar, a member of the Iranian parliament, told the Weekly in an interview in early November that she does not feel there is any will to change on the Egyptian side. "At a certain time [before reformists came to power] the will did not exist in Iran. And when this stance was changed [after Khatami came to power], it seemed lost on the Egyptian side," she said.

Kadivar, who was a member of friendship groups that included Egyptian and Iranian intellectuals, parliamentarians and members of NGOs, explained that amidst turmoil and instability in the region, Israel has benefited the most from the freezing of relations between the two countries. However, Iran and Egypt have succeeded in recent years in warming relations, starting with expanded trade ties.

An Egyptian trade delegation to the General Federation of Chambers of Commerce met with the chairman of Iran's Chamber of Commerce in Iran on 19 November, shortly before the two presidents' meeting. The two sides signed a memorandum of understanding for a joint chamber of commerce with offices in both Tehran and Cairo. It was also announced that the two countries have planned to set up a joint investment and commercial company, but did not reveal any details. Between 1999 and 2001, two trade fairs have been organised in both countries.

There are also individual efforts by Egyptian and Iranian businessmen to trade in the famous Iranian pistachios and carpets; the trade exchange, however, does not exceed $25 million.

Mosayab Na'emi, editor-in-chief of Iranian Al- Vefaq, pointed out the many mutual economic benefits are to be gained if the two countries come together. According to Na'emi, both countries are in the same development phase, but they have many prospects for integration as Egypt can be a transit point for Iran into Africa and Iran the same for Egypt into Central Asia.

Na'emi also referred to Shi'ite religious tourist trips to Egypt, which could provide Egypt with thousands of visitors annually. "Syria has only one Shi'ite site and it receives thousands every year. Egypt, which has about 7 Shi'ite sites, will definitely attract more than 50,000 Iranian tourists. Shi'ites in Iran constitute the overwhelming majority of the Iranian population, which is over 70 million," he said.

However, it is yet to be seen if such prospects will materialise in the near future. Summarising the popular feelings of many Iranians and Egyptians, Sabooni said: "What indeed is important is that our two governments be honest with each other and move forward with wisdom, clarity of purpose, understanding and flexibility."

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