Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 January 2008
Issue No. 878
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

As good as it gets, for now

Larijani's visit to Cairo continues to improve ties between Egypt and Iran but Rasha Saad asks whether it is enough to restore diplomatic relations

Ali Larijani, head of the Iranian National Security Council and close aide to Iran's supreme leader Ali Khamenei, was on a six-day private visit to Egypt this week with his family. The visit was significant not only because of Larijani's high- ranking position, or because of the wide range of activities he conducted, but because of the affect the trip might have over the future of the eventual state of relations between the two countries

Larijani met high-ranking officials as well as intellectuals and journalists in both the Egyptian Press Syndicate and the Foreign Press Association. He also held private meetings with members of the Higher Council for Foreign Policy and members of the Iranian-Egyptian Friendship Association. Meeting with Egyptian grassroots is unprecedented by any Iranian official visiting Egypt.

On the official level, Larijani met Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, the powerful head of Egyptian General Intelligence Omar Suleiman, and the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar Sayed Tantawi.

Despite the high-profile trip, though seen as a step in the right direction, it is still far from a breakthrough.

Abul-Gheit said that he and Larijani reviewed the present "conditions" of Egyptian Iranian relations, adding the two nations were "still discussing every aspect related to bilateral, regional and security issues". The statement was interpreted as reflecting Egypt's cautiousness at restoring full diplomatic ties.

The visit by Larijani came amid a thaw between Egypt and Iran whose relations were frozen for 28 years. It followed a visit last month to Tehran by Egypt's deputy foreign minister, Hussein Derar, and a preceding visit to Cairo in September by Derar's counterpart, Abbas Irakachi.

Analysts believe that the signs of warming relations came after Egypt concluded that the so- called "coalition of moderates" in which it is grouped with Jordan and Saudi Arabia, cannot afford to ignore the so-called "coalition of the extremists" which Iran leads. This realisation was reinforced after the Annapolis meeting that placed Iran's isolation from any Arab support as one of its main objectives, Arab and foreign analysts argue. Annapolis, they say, aimed to create a tacit anti- Iran coalition that would counter the influence of Tehran in a region that has almost broken apart. Meanwhile, Egypt is aware that Iran's growing influence in the region is not likely to be contained anytime soon. Indeed, the Islamic republic's sphere of influence continues to include nearly all hot spots in the region -- Gaza, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.

Rapprochement of the Gulf countries with Iran is also another factor that has prompted a new style of diplomacy by Cairo towards Tehran. Cairo, Egyptian diplomats say, is fully aware of the significance of the unprecedented participation of an Iranian head of state in the post-Annapolis Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit, especially that the summit was followed by a major security conference in Bahrain where Gulf leaders openly challenged US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on American policies towards Iran and Israel, accusing Washington of double standards on the nuclear issue in both cases. They also blamed the US for being hypocritical for supporting Israeli nuclear weapons, and questioned Washington's refusal to meet with Iran to discuss the Islamic state's nuclear programme.

According to analysts, carefully reading these signs Cairo obviously did not want to see the formation of a new potential regional alliance that could bring together the Arab Gulf countries and Iran while excluding Egypt. Egypt, officials say, should not be isolated from Gulf security arrangements. "This is a national strategic interest that cannot be overlooked -- ever," a senior Egyptian diplomat insists.

While no sufficient details are provided by officials as to the stumbling blocks holding back an imminent breakthrough, diplomats close to Iranian-Egyptian ties point out several issues that Egypt needs to address before they speak about normalisation. Without a consensus Egyptians will maintain a dialogue with Iranians over various issues, but normalisation will not be one of them.

Iranians on the other hand see the restoration of diplomatic ties as a priority to be followed by a discussion of all pending issues within the framework of normal relations.

"We [Egyptians] think it is not up to the Iranians [to decide on the priorities]. We want to resolve certain issues in order to go ahead with our normalisation process especially, not only in the security domain," a diplomatic source who asked not to be identified told Al-Ahram Weekly.

According to the source, when Egyptians ask the Iranians direct questions on specific security issues, the Iranians respond by giving general answers and focus instead on the importance of bilateral relations between Egypt and Iran.

Thus Egypt in this phase, according to the source, will be adopting a policy of continued openness "but that is all for now".

The Iranians apparently have gotten the message. According to an informed Iranian source the message was understood by the Iranians during former Iranian president Mohamed Khatami's groundbreaking visit to Egypt in March during which he met President Hosni Mubarak and discussed the restoration of ties with Egyptian officials.

The Iranian source told the Weekly that during the visit by the reformist Khatami a clear message was conveyed that Egypt is not ready in the near future for a diplomatic breakthrough and that the only leap forward will be solely on trade and cultural levels.

As a result, Iranians have learnt to keep a low profile of their engagement with the Egyptians. This new attitude contrasts with their previous stand which more than once resulted in unilaterally announcing a restoration of diplomatic relations with Egypt, an announcement which was followed by a diplomatic denial from the Egyptian side.

Larijani's statements during his visit clearly reflected Iran's wariness of making the same mistake. "The dialogue and discussions are going on, but we should not be hasty," Larijani told reporters in Cairo.

Also in Tehran, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Mohamed Ali Husseini said that Larijani's visit was personal but because Egyptian officials are familiar with him, several high-level meetings were held all the same.

Meanwhile, an economic leap has begun. In a visit regarded as a milestone in the development of industrial and trade relations between both countries, Iranian Industries and Mines Minister Ali Akbar Mehrabian attended the inaugural operation of the assembly line of the Iranian Peugeot Pars passenger car in Cairo.

Mehrabian, who is accompanied by managing director of Iran's first auto-maker Iran-Khodro, producer of Peugeot Pars, and head of the Iranian Industries Development and Renovation Organisation, also attended talks with Egypt's private sector industrialists and businessmen in a bid to further expand Tehran-Cairo industrial and trade ties.

Referring to Egypt's great potential for joint ventures in various fields, the official called for activation of the Iran-Egypt Bank especially in Tehran.

Mehrabian also met his counterpart Rachid Mohamed Rachid who welcomed the reinforcement of relations and vowed that obstacles in the way of bilateral cooperation will be removed.

"The coming period will see the start of a new phase of economic relations between Egypt and Iran," Rachid said in a statement a day after Mehrabian's visit.

The highlight of the Mehrabian-Rachid meeting was laying down the framework of a wheat deal in which Egypt is due to import 200,000 tonnes of the strategic good from Iran.

Larijani's visit is expected to be followed by other visits by officials of influence. An upcoming visit to Egypt by Iranian Parliament Speaker Gholam Ali Haddad Adel later this month has been scheduled. Being married to the daughter of Iranian supreme leader Khamenei adds weight to Adel's trip. Adel's visit, according to Iranian sources, will be aimed at a bolstering of parliamentary cooperation between the two sides.

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